The announcement yesterday by Beijing's environmental officials that the city was about to hit 4 million automobiles -- and could withstand more -- was, at the very least, poorly timed.
Official readings said the city's air was largely "unhealthy," while the US Embassy in Beijing, using a stricter air pollution metric, gave a "very unhealthy" warning. Automobile emissions are a major contributor to levels of particulate matter, ozone, and the carbons NO2, CO2 and black carbon, or soot. Such auto pollution in China has been tied to lead poisoning, respiratory illnesses, sterility and more.
So why on earth were officials so upbeat?As officials announced the new car milestone, they touted the city's recent raft of emissions regulations and programs (including a cash-for-clunkers initiative) which helped take 200,000 high-polluting vehicles from streets this year. The city has also extended a set of car restrictions started during the Olympics, which cuts a fifth of the vehicle population each day.
"This contributes to a reduction of 25 percent of the total car emissions in Beijing," Li Kunsheng, director of the vehicle emission management division of the bureau, told China Daily. "This leaves more room for Beijing's roaring car population."
Beijing's car population reached 3.96 million last week, which translates to around 1 million tons of pollutants annually. It is expected that it will have taken only 28 months for the number of cars in the city to increase from 3 million to 4 million. In August, the city was adding 1,200 new cars to its roads, and in February the number was a bit higher.
Beijing's and China's ongoing efforts to tackle automobile emissions are essential. But they could also be eroded by an excessive amount of cars. And then there's the city's incredible, mind-numbing all-day rush hour. It's an unfortunate reputation for the world's former bicycle capital to have earned, and it's one that erodes quality of life and economic productivity.
Temporary car bans aren't the answer. Not only are they easily avoided by those with two cars, but as continuing traffic jams attest, they're little more than a stop-gap measure.
At some point, Beijing will have no choice but to implement car restrictions on certain areas of the city, limit the issuing of license plates (which it had pledged to do) and continue to develop the world's largest subway network.
But it's also worth remembering who's making money off of new car sales: the government, which has a partial stake in most of China's automobile companies. Perhaps even deeper changes will be needed.