'Political requirement'

But they say the economic growth is now ready to be weaned from its addiction to coal and the State Council decision - including to apportion responsibilities to local governments and enterprises - shows a stronger political consensus has been reached to mobilise the bureaucracy.

Pan Jiahua, who heads a team of climate change economists at China's leading think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Fairfax Media that the State Council’s endorsement of the energy target had the effect of elevating it into a “political requirement”.

He said officials in local governments and state-owned enterprises would now be judged partly on their ability to meet energy targets while a long list of green slogans, incentives and policies were translating into concrete measures.

Professor Pan said energy security remained the primary motivation behind the measures but last month’s record pollution readings in North China had contributed to the hardening of political will.

“Chinese people have done enough tolerating such bad air,” he said.

The State Council last week set a total primary energy consumption target (including renewable energy and transport fuel) of 4 billion tonnes of “standard coal equivalent” in the five years to 2015. Confusingly, 1 tonne of actual coal equates to about 0.68 tonnes of coal equivalent, according to Dr Jiang.

With two years of the plan period already used up, the target translates to annual growth in energy consumption of about 3.5 per cent over the next three years, down from 6.6 per cent per year in the five years to 2010.

A proportion of the increase will be absorbed by hydro, wind, solar and nuclear – which are all benefiting from strong government assistance - at the expense of coal.