China’s Tailpipe Tally

The World’s Biggest Nation "Modernizes" with More Cars

The tale of China’s modernization is being told along its winding dirt trails, the paved gray roads in its cities and, more recently, its ambitious network of highways. In rural Hainan, farmers still pedal to their paddy fields before dawn, bumping along paths of dusty red soil. In the urban explosions of Beijing and Shanghai, however, bicycles now have to fight for space with ever-increasing numbers of motor vehicles—and residents have to fight to breathe.

In China, car ownership grows at 19 percent a year, exacerbating an already terrible air-quality problem, while bicycles are being de-emphasized.© Stan Tribble

The recent World Bank report China: Air, Land and Water estimates a 19 percent average annual growth rate for passenger vehicles between 1990 and 1999. This, according to the report, is "only the very beginning." The Chinese government has forecast a market of six million vehicles a year by 2010.

"Today, one in about 85 Chinese owns a car," says Douglas Ogden, director of the China Sustainable Energy Program (CSEP). "Urban congestion is staggering. Projections show that China could surpass the total number of cars in the U.S. by 2030," he says.

More bad news for China’s urban areas, which are already notoriously smoggy: In 1999, only one third of China’s 338 monitored cities were able to meet the nation’s residential ambient air-quality criteria. Chinese cities continually contend to be among the "top 10 filthiest" in the world—industrial hubs like Taiyuan and Jinan had, at last measure, pollution levels nearly 10 times above World Health Organization (WHO) safety limits.

"China’s worst environmental problem is probably local air pollution," warns Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. The WHO has calculated that approximately 178,000 deaths and 346,000 hospital admissions from respiratory diseases in urban areas could be prevented each year by meeting stricter air-quality standards. The World Bank estimates that in the late 1990s China lost between 3.5 and 7.7 percent of its potential economic output as a result of the health effects of pollution. In the longer term, greenhouse gas emissions may also be responsible for global warming.

Currently hanging in the balance, the future of China’s transportation will prove critical to the state of its environment. Already, mobile sources account for 45 to 60 percent of nitrogen oxide and 85 percent of carbon monoxide emissions in Chinese cities. Jeffrey Logan of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory says, "With China’s car industry growth, restrictions will also be loosened. There’s going to be serious environmental and social problems."

China is no isolated case. As Esty points out, "How China and the U.S. behave determines the environment in large parts of the world. It’s important that they cooperate in addressing issues for a shared future."

"China is the fastest-growing contributor of global warming emissions," Ogden agrees, "with its carbon dioxide output on track to surpass that of the U.S. by 2025." Like Esty, he pushes for U.S. involvement. "Our government has tremendous capacity and know-how, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy budgets for policy and technical assistance to China are anemic."

China’s transportation revolution is all the more significant because the nation has always been, as the national newspaper China Daily put it as recently as 2000, "a kingdom of bicycles." Fred Strebeigh, an American writer in China (on bicycle, of course) during the time of the Tiananmen protests, called the bicycles "wheels of freedom." The World Bank admits that, "unlike other urban issues, the problem of motor vehicle emissions was not even foreseen at the beginning of the 1990s."

Even now, the side streets of Beijing and Shanghai are full of "foot cars," as bicycles are called in the Chinese language, and huge parking lots are reserved for their usage. On the roads, bicycle lanes are as wide, if not wider than, car lanes. Dongquan He, a transportation program officer at CSEP’s China office, says that while a limited trend has started of moving bicycles out of some of the bigger cities, "bicycles and public transit are still the major mode of transportation."

According to Jentai Yang of the EPA’s office of international affairs, "Bicycles have a limited competing distance of five miles or less, but for many Chinese people, their residence and workplace are not that far apart. The critical thing is to make it convenient for bicycle riders, so as to maintain the culture of bicycle usage."

However, many observers acknowledge that China cannot cycle its way through the 21st century. "Bicycles have been overly romanticized," Esty contends. "They’re entirely inefficient except in the shortest-scale trips. It’s not a realistic starting point for an economically modern country."

Instead, it is now motor vehicles that represent new kinds of freedom, including long-range mobility and economic choice. "The government realizes that the car industry is a pillar of the economy," Logan says. The Asian Development Bank has called highway construction vital for poverty alleviation; both it and the World Bank are lending heavily to support China’s road expansion. By 2020, the Chinese government hopes to connect all major cities on a 34,000-mile national road grid.

Since a return to the days of romantically named bicycles like Golden Lion and Racing Deity is not likely, what CSEP hopes to promote, in tandem with other nonprofits and the Chinese government, is an advanced public transit system as an alternative to the automobile. "We are encouraging new approaches that convey public benefits, including dedicated bus rapid transit systems and safer streets for bicycles and pedestrians," Ogden explains. He is aware, however, that China has some way to go to avert environmental ruin. "China needs to clean up fuels, implement stricter tailpipe emissions standards, adopt aggressive fuel economy standards and introduce hybrid-electric and fuel cell vehicles," he says.

Daunting? Perhaps. Fortunately, Yang points out, the Chinese government is cognizant of the situation. The inclusion of the environmental issue in the latest Five-Year Plans, Beijing’s vehicle retrofit program and the national phase-out of lead gasoline appear to bode well. As Esty puts it, "When looking at China, one has to have a degree of short-term pessimism but long-term optimism."