China's Public Enemy No. 1 (Hint: 500,000 More Hit the Roads Daily)

china cars car population

Drive one day less and look how much carbon monoxide you'll keep out of the air we breathe. (WWF)
Updated 1.7.2009 | If China saw the car the way it increasingly sees, for instance, coal plants, industrial pollution and ungreen buildings -- that is, as dangers to the country's environmental and social stability -- we might have cause to breathe a little bit easier.

But as the country races down the road of western-style consumption at the rate of 11% GDP growth per year, it's like the '50s all over again: the car is at the top of everyone's wish list. After giving a lecture to a group of environmental science students in Beijing last year, Lester Brown asked how many hoped to own a car: all hands went up. And China's got a lot of hands.

But whose hands are on the wheel? With about 500,000 new private cars hitting China's roads every month in 2007 (and over 800,000 vehicles per month in the first nine months of 2008), national and sometimes local governments have been experimenting with ways to address the car problem, which is hurting not only the environment but, due to endless gridlock, crippling the basic productivity of cities like Beijing. (Not to mention that cars are responsible for 100,000 deaths in China a year, more than anywhere else.)

As the huge Shanghai Auto Expo opens this week, many challenges remain, not least the dependence of the government on its booming car industry: even as it snarls traffic, causes respiratory problems and ruins the air, the largely state-run auto industry employs 1.7 million workers.
Beijing Jam, a short film by Lois Xiang about cars, traffic jams and road rage.
"No car" days, massive public transit improvements and attempts to resuscitate the bicycle will mean nothing without a change in the way China -- and the rest of the world -- sees the car.

The stakes are high. Currently, CO2 and NO2 levels are soaring while China desperately pokes around for the oil it needs in in Africa, supporting governments like Sudan's.

Putting It In Perspective
It is worth noting that as of 2008, China’s vehicle ownership per thousand people is below 50, while the world average is 120 and the number is 740 in the United States.

But if China reached US levels of auto consumption, Lester Brown has noted, "the country would have to pave an area equal to the land it now plants in rice. It would need 99 million barrels of oil a day. Yet the world currently produces 84 million barrels per day and may never produce much more."

One Car Policy?
Serious restrictions on urban car usage, a la the famous one child policy, would help, but in this era of massive social change, such notions remain politically and logistically infeasible. More realistic are ongoing market-based efforts, like raising taxes on license plates and fuel, in addition to higher fuel economy standards.

As environmental minister Pan Yue recently wrote, "Beijing has automotive exhaust standards, but the air keeps getting more polluted because more cars are being introduced." Even more key then is balancing the problems of cars with their economic benefits: the city-owned Beijing Automotive Industry Corp., employed 48,000 workers and paid more than $500 million in local taxes last year. The government must also address the traditional fabric of cities, so that public transit takes priority over new roads.

And then there's the biggest and most crucial challenge of all: altering mindsets. Increasingly, that front is being tackled by China's rising NGOs, like WWF. Their brilliant 20to20 public campaign to get China to realize its goal of 20 percent CO2 reductions by 2020, pictured above, includes a drive against cars and other types of consumption seen as deserved luxuries or necessary evils on the road to prosperity.

Hmm. That's never seemed like a worse metaphor. : : (English)

(Many thanks to Max Parness for pointing out errors with my numbers on China's car population.)

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