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.
- In 1996, China produced 1.4 million vehicles. By 2000, production is expected to reach 2.7 million and by 2010, six million.
- Registered motor vehicles in China (excluding scooters) are expected to reach 44 to 50 million by the year 2010. China’s long-term goal is to have every household own a car.
- Growth in recent years in the use of motor vehicles in China has been dramatic. In the six years between 1987 and 1993, the stock of civilian motor vehicles (trucks, passenger vehicles, motorcycles, and tractors) increased by about 12% per year.
- In Beijing alone, the number of vehicles is growing by 15% per year. The total number of motor vehicles reached about 28 million in 1995. Though large in absolute terms, on a per capita basis China’s motor vehicle fleet is not so big. Per capita registrations in China are only 3% of those in the U.S.
- The structure of the Chinese vehicle fleet differs from that of the industrialized countries in that only 12% or so of the vehicles are passenger vehicles. In contrast, motorcycles represent a third of China’s vehicle fleet.
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.
Transportation and Air Pollution
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 an important cause of these pollution emissions. In Beijing, 40% of autos surveyed – and 70% of taxis – failed to meet the most basic emission standards.
- In Shanghai, emissions of 100,000 motor vehicles and 300,000 motor bikes were above the national permitted level.
Transportation and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions
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.
- Worldwide, motor vehicles are sources of all the important gases contributing to global warming and account for between 15 and 20% of energy-related CO2 emissions. Like all fossil fuels, gasoline and diesel fuel emit carbon dioxide when they are burned, about 5.1 pounds of carbon per gallon of gasoline.
- As a result, China’s CO2 emissions are likely to increase in parallel with growth in its fleet of oil-powered motor vehicles. Policies to encourage oil-powered vehicle use – in China or anywhere else – can only exacerbate the problems of controlling emissions related to global warming.
China’s Oil Security
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.
- By the year 2000, imports are expected to reach one million barrels per day and by 2010, three million barrels per day. Increased oil imports could pose significant risks to China’s national and economic security.
- Inevitably, more of China’s oil will come from the unstable Persian Gulf. Recognizing this, China has been aggressively pursuing joint arrangements for oil exploration and production in 23 countries around the world including Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, and the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
- China is the 6th largest oil producer but has only 2.3% of global proved reserves. Despite its current high production levels, China – like the United States – does not have the huge resources needed to sustain its current production levels for any long period of time. As a result, the long-term outlook for China’s oil production is not bright.
- According to the U.S. Geological Survey – which in turn relied heavily on reports of Chinese geologists – China’s ultimately recoverable oil resources are estimated to be between 55 and 128 billion (109) barrels. Using the higher estimate, a preliminary – and conservative – estimate can be made of when China’s conventional oil production might start declining: it is about the year 2015. In other words, from a long-term perspective, China’s oil resources are limited and a peaking in production and subsequent decline can be anticipated in less than 20 years if rapid growth in production takes place as expected.
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.