Emulating the United States, China’s urban transportation policy is focused primarily on the use of motor vehicles. Over-reliance on oil-powered vehicles will almost certainly exacerbate China’s long-term problems stemming from air pollution, global climate change, risks to China’s national security, and traffic congestion.
China’s high economic growth highlights the potential conflicts between rapid industrialization and environmental protection. Nowhere is the potential conflict between development and the environment more apparent than in transportation. In its long-range planning to modernize, China has placed a heavy emphasis on motor vehicles as the basis for transportation planning.
The potential adverse impacts of a transport system based primarily on oil-powered motor vehicles are several fold and include deterioration in urban air quality with its associated medical and economic costs; increased emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2; increased risks to China’s oil and economic security from rapidly growing oil imports from unstable regions; and traffic congestion and its resulting costs to the Chinese economy through lost time, excess fuel use, medical costs, and excessive wear on vehicles.
Air pollution is a major problem in China and threatens public health and welfare on a large scale. Pollutants include carbon monoxide (CO), about 85 percent of which comes from motor vehicles; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the precursors to smog and ozone, also mainly from vehicles; and particulate matter. National NO2 air quality standards are currently exceeded across large areas including these where traffic is heavy. Similarly, carbon monoxide standards are generally exceeded in high traffic areas exposing pedestrians, bicyclists, and others to potentially high levels of CO. Although the data are sparse, it appears that the national standards for particulates are exceeded in many Chinese cities, partly from emissions from motor vehicles. In addition to the risks they impose from smog formation, nitrogen oxides contribute to acid deposition and the excess fertilization (eutrophication) of aquatic systems.
Motor vehicles are also important contributors to the problem of global warming. Through a variety of industrial and agricultural activities – such as fossil fuel burning – humankind is adding gases to the atmosphere that are enhancing the earth’s natural greenhouse effect. These added gases are expected to lead to long-term and possibly irreversible changes in the planet’s climate.
Virtually all nations in the world, including China, have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, acknowledging the seriousness of the global warming problem and committing the signatories to long-term actions to reduce GHG emissions.
China is a major producer of oil, accounting for almost 5% of world production. However, its rapid growth in oil consumption – averaging 8% per year between 1991 and 1996 – has outstripped domestic production and China has been a net oil importer since 1994. (By 1997, imports accounted for 20% of China’s supply.) Increased imports are expected with the continued growth in motor vehicle use.
These trends have profound implications for China and its movement to build a vast motor-vehicle industry and associated infrastructure based on present-day petroleum technology. In the coming years, as China’s need for oil grows, especially for transportation, it will have to import more and more of its supply, with a consequent burden in its balance of payments. Moreover, as world oil production gradually shifts, as it inevitably will, to the Middle East, the risks of supply disruption from political turmoil will grow, another factor to consider in China’s long-range transportation planning. These economic, resource, and security considerations need to be carefully evaluated if China decides to move ahead to build a vast motor vehicle industry and infrastructure based on petroleum.
NOTE: The World Resources Institute is undertaking a study with Chinese researchers and municipal officials to develop a sustainable transportation strategy for Dalian, a major Chinese city.