The national environmental agency yesterday announced a set of revised criteria to determine if a province can be termed "ecologically sound".
In line with the central government's push for environmental protection, no province will be able to be listed as such if it fails to meet its energy-saving and emission prevention goals.
The requirements also include regions being free from major environmental accidents for three consecutive years.
Other indicators to be considered include forest coverage, species protection, air quality, water quality, pollution emissions, rehabilitation of degraded soil and farmers' incomes.
The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) said the new criteria will help realize the goal of an "ecological civilization", written into the Constitution of the Communist Party of China at its 17th Congress in October.
"The revised guidelines give balanced emphasis on environmental protection and economic development, and pay more attention to the ecological performance in rural areas," Li Yuan, deputy director of SEPA's nature and ecology department, told China Daily.
Li said the government first made public the old guidelines in 2003 but no province, municipality or autonomous region has met the requirements. So far, only six provinces have made it to a "preparatory list."
Yesterday, SEPA also revealed the criteria for an "ecologically sound city and county".
Six cities (counties) were approved by SEPA in 2006 as the first batch of national, ecologically sound cities (counties), including Zhangjiagang, a new port city in Jiangsu province; and Minhang, a suburban industrial district of Shanghai.
Some economic indicators, such as per capita GDP, have been removed.
Li said this illustrates the central government's preference for using sustainable development indicators instead of economic performance to assess local governments and officials.
However, the guidelines have retained the index of the farmers' net annual incomes, as rural development and agriculture have been listed on the central government's top agenda. For example, the average farmer's annual income per year in East China must be at least 8,000 yuan ($1,100).