China's Car Boom Tests Safety, Pollution Practices

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 28, 2004
China's roadways, once synonymous with throngs of bicycles, are
experiencing an explosion of car traffic driven by the nation's growing
consumer class.

"As China has become more wealthy, the growing middle class does want to purchase cars," said Jennifer L. Turner, coordinator of the China Environment Forum for the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

China is the world's fastest growing auto market. According Chinese government statistics, over two million cars were sold in the country in 2003, a nearly 80 percent increase over 2002.

While last year's SARS virus scare spurred a brief spike in auto sales among consumers anxious to shun public transportation, most Chinese car buyers today shop for the same reasons as other global consumers: They seek the comfort, convenience, and status of car ownership.

Only three of every thousand Chinese own a car today. But in an economically expanding nation of some 1.3 billion people, it's not hard to envision that China could someday become the world's largest auto market. Foreign automakers have long seen the Asian giant's potential—and spent billions to gain market share in China.

In China, Audis, BMWs, and Japanese and U.S. luxury car brands—all made in partnership with Chinese companies—share roads with more affordable Chinese models, which sell for between U.S. $4,000 and $7,000.

While most car owners in China today are urban and wealthy, experts say cheaper models and growing used-car markets in the future are likely to expand car ownership to consumers with more moderate incomes.

Rising Gridlock, Fatalities

But more cars on Chinese roads, however, mean more headaches—the sort that many Western drivers are all too familiar with.

Planners in China, for example, now contend with stifling traffic patterns. Larger cities are reshaping neighborhoods and even banning bicycles from some roadways to address congestion, but these measures don't always work.

"In Beijing, in particular, the traffic jams are incredible," Turner said, noting that the city already has six ring roads (or beltways) and is planning three more.

Traffic woes pale in comparison, however, to China's auto fatalities, which have been the world's highest for many years—despite the nation's comparatively small number of cars.

According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, road accidents caused over a hundred thousand deaths in each of the past two years. Seventy percent of these fatalities were attributed to driver error.

Responding to the grim reality, China enacted its first law governing road traffic safety early last month. The statute assigns drivers more blame for pedestrians injured in auto accidents.

One Beijing driver, surnamed Li, was the first to be banned from driving for life under the new law, according to the state-run China Daily. Li fled after his car hit and killed a pedestrian on May 3. While Li expressed regret for the accident, he told the newspaper, "I never expected I would receive such severe punishment."

Other statutes will fine pedestrians and cyclists for failing to adhere to crosswalk signals.

Growing Oil Appetite

Rising car ownership in China also raises questions about future effects on the world's oil markets. But analysts say precise impacts are difficult to predict.

"China is currently the world's second largest consumer, but still only consumes about one-third as much oil as the U.S.," said Jeffrey Logan, China program manager for the International Energy Agency.

Logan notes that "growth is increasing very rapidly," however, and said Chinese demand for oil grew more than 10 percent last year and is expected to be about 13 percent this year. "Car ownership and industrial production are the main drivers of this growth in oil demand," he said.

Environmental Impacts

A decade ago, automobiles in China guzzled around 10 percent of the country's total oil usage. Today, cars now consume a third of all the oil used.

This growing appetite has raised environmental concerns both within China and abroad.

Only the United States produces more greenhouse gas emissions than China today. However, over the next few decades China's growth could far outstrip other nations'—in part because of the auto boom.

While coal use—responsible for some 75 percent of China's energy production—remains a primary source of air pollution, the growing number of automobiles in China is rapidly compounding the problem.

"In Beijing, and other cities, for 10 or 15 years [authorities] tried to switch from coal to cleaner fuels, like natural gas, and also to regulate polluting industries and move them out of the city centers," Turner said.

"In the early to mid-1990s they really started seeing cleaner air results. But by the late 1990s the car emissions had basically replaced the pollution that they had cleaned up before," Turner said. "In many big cities 50 percent of the air pollution is coming from cars. So it was a big step back."

The Chinese government has since tried to tackle problems posed by the growing number of cars as well.

Bus and rail systems have seen recent and ongoing improvements, and some cities have unveiled cleaner-fuel-burning buses and taxis. Government authorities have also mandated changes in the way the auto industry does business. Leaded gasoline, for example, was banned and largely replaced within a three-year time frame.

Emission standards, which were unknown in China before 2000, are now in place. While the standards lag those of Europe by a decade, government officials are trying to play catch-up.

New fuel-efficiency standards have also been enacted. Experts say the relatively small number of cars in China today makes its market more nimble in adopting new standards.

China's fuel-efficiency standards "are similar to the CAFE [corporate average fuel efficiency] standards in the U.S.," said IEA's Logan. "The requirements for 2007 are higher than those currently used in the U.S., which average 27.5 miles [44.2 kilometers] per gallon. In general, Chinese car [fuel] efficiency is fairly low, but the average size of cars in China is also small, so they don't consume that much petrol [gasoline]."

Turner notes that regulations are only a starting point. "The devil is in the details of implementation," she said. "Local governments are often not very supportive in implementing environmental regulations."

Support for auto regulations could be tough to muster because the car industry is an economic engine that drives job growth and industrial development. It also produces revenue in rather unconventional ways.

"Shanghai does a kind of auction or lottery for license plates, because the demand is so high," Turner said. "That money goes into the city's coffers. The local government's financial incentive is often clear—to get more cars out there."

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