Twenty Years To Clear Chinese Smog Whilst Car Sales Surge!

Air air everywhere, not a breath to breathe. Guest writer, MAC, provides an update on the pollution conundrum in China, and there’s more at stake than just dirty air. 

In a recent interview with German environmental expert and Chairman of the International Resource Panel, Ernst von Weizsacker, he said that the smog problem that is plaguing Chinese cities could take more than twenty years to be resolved. In other words, the life threatening chemical soup that hangs around most industrialised Chinese cities will remain for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, the Passenger Car Association of China announced that new car sales had surge by some 9% in the past month as deliveries by Toyota and General Motors rose on consumer fears that more cities may start to limit the number of new car registrations very soon. This is thought to amount to a staggering 1.59 million cars, MPVs and SUVs being delivered in the month of March alone!

In Europe, in the 1950s and 1960s, there were far fewer cars so the pollution was recognised as being largely due to the overdependence of the economies on burning coal, pretty much as the Chinese economy is these days. The authorities in China have of course recognised that coal is an issue and they have shown a determination to raise the energy efficiency and tackle the dependence on fossil fuel with a target of 15% of China’s total primary energy consumption to be from renewable sources and a 45% decrease in CO2 emissions.

Von Weizsacker was quoted as stating: “ I believe the dependence on coal in China is roughly the same as it was in Germany in the late 1960s. In Germany, it took twenty years to adjust from a model that was over-reliant on coal. This is also doable for China.”

China’s Premier Li Keqiang declares war on smog

Against this backdrop comes the announcement that Hangzhou, the capital of eastern Zhejiang province, has joined Beijing and Shanghai in imposing a quota on the sale of new cars as part of a measure to alleviate traffic congestion and air pollution. As a result, many consumers are bringing forward their plans to buy a car in anticipation that the same measures will roll out across the country, especially after local government’s head Premier Li Keqiang’s call to wage war on smog.

In a Bloomberg report, Han Wei Qi, an analyst from CSC International Holding Ltd, said, “People don’t want to risk their chances of owning a car and they would rather buy sooner than later given that it is unpredictable when purchase limits would be imposed.”

Cynics amongst us, and of course I am one of those, believe that the car ban is more to do with the congestion than the pollution. The Chinese authorities have been building roads like they were going out of fashion. I remember working in China in 1983 (yup, I am that old) and travelling the length and breadth of the country largely on mud roads. But it doesn’t matter how fast you build the roads, the growth of private passenger vehicles is outstripping the ability to keep the traffic flowing smoothly and traffic snarls follow (read also: Now Stop Complaining).

There is another consideration: over one and a half million new cars hit the Chinese roads in March; if between them they have an average tank capacity of 55 litres, then that would amount to 87 450 000 litres of fuel, which is roughly half a super tanker per month just for one tank full each. What if they are using more than one tank per month? For a country that imports just about all of its oil, this is a significant consideration.

In countries like Singapore and cities like London and New York, the age of the personal passenger vehicle being available to the masses is slowly coming to an end. The democratisation of transport is over and it would appear that the age of the universal right of all citizens to own a car is coming to an end. We will revert to a model of a bygone era, when a car was a luxury afforded only by the rich and perhaps government officials. Glad I got mine already, is all I can say.

View of Brixton filtered by smog

As a footnote, I wrote recently about smog issues in northern Europe and in particular over Paris; this cloud has now drifted to southern UK and is being added to with dust from the Sahara. Of course, pollution does not respect international borders and floats where it pleases. The recent arrival of the French smog over London, which led to significant deterioration in air quality, resulted in an almost immediate and massive increase in calls to the ambulance service due to breathing difficulties. It would appear that in the European version of the current global smog crisis, French agricultural policy and the subsidy of diesel vehicles is largely to blame and not the burning of coal, as is the case in China. Nonetheless, pollution is a global problem and one we all need to work together to resolve regardless of where we live.



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