Should People Who Live in Glass Houses Be So Quick to Throw Stones?

A recent story in the Washington Post (“China's Cars, Accelerating A Global Demand for Fuel,”) would lead you to believe that a horde of new car buyers in China are the reason Americans are enduring $4.00/gallon gas.  That’s like the big pot calling the little kettle black.  

Let’s do a few comparisons: 

Number of passenger vehicles in the U.S.:251 million
Number of passenger vehicles in China: 15.2 million
Population of the U.S.:300 million
Population of China:1.3 billion
Annual car sales in the U.S.:16.1 million (2007)
Annual car sales in China:8.8 million (2007)
Average American’s annual gasoline consumption:1,635.2 liters (2003)
Average Chinese’s annual gasoline consumption:44.6 (2003)
Oil consumption in the U.S.:20.7 million barrels/day
Oil consumption in China:8 million barrels/day
U.S. fuel economy standards:24.8 mpg now (cars and light trucks combined), 35 mpg in 2020
Chinese fuel economy standards now:36 mpg now, 43 mpg in 2009


To be sure, car sales and gasoline consumption in China are rising fast, but from a very small base.  And, while many Chinese middle class consumers are choosing four-wheeled cars over two-wheeled motorcycles and electric bicycles, and some Chinese are buying big cars, most Chinese cars are much smaller than ours.  More to the point, China’s fuel economy standards today are stronger than the ones we’ll have 12 years from now.   

The Post article notes that China keeps gasoline prices low through subsidies, encourages automobile sales though easy financing, and promotes gasoline consumption by building highways, spread-out suburbs, and parking facilities.  Does this sound like any other country you know? 

Breathlessly, the article says, “If China continues to increase its use of oil at the average pace of 6 to 7 percent a year, as it has since 1990, it will consume as much as the United States in more than 20 years.”   Translation:  It will be more than 20 years before China, with four times the U.S. population, uses as much oil as America uses now.    

And that’s assuming they do nothing to further increase fuel economy or reduce the growth of miles travelled.  Just last week, for instance, China’s State Council agreed to raise the consumption tax on cars with large engines—typically with low fuel efficiency—in order to save energy.  Energy-efficient cars will get preferential tax treatment.  The State Council also vowed to remove old polluting vehicles from the roads.  In June, China raised gasoline and diesel prices by about 48 cents per gallon.  

You might think hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells, and electric cars are just for developed countries like Japan and the U.S.  You’d be wrong.  Twelve new foreign and domestic hybrid car models made their Chinese debut at the Beijing auto show last April.  During the Olympic Games, twenty hydrogen fuel cell Passat Lingyu cars will be used as government vehicles, and 24 electric buses and 10 hybrid vehicles will shuttle athletes around the Olympic village.   

China is currently one of the largest markets for alternative fuel vehicles, with some 200,000 in service, and is focusing its R&D on developing practical hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, in the hopes of leapfrogging gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of fuel cells.  The Passat Lingyu was developed and built completely by Chinese enterprises at the Clean Energy Automotive Engineering Center of Tongii University in Shanghai.  It generates zero pollution, has a maximum speed of 150 km/hour (93 m.p.h.), and a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles).                 

China is also expanding public transit options.  In January, new bus-based rapid transit systems opened in Dalian, Changzhou, and Chongqing, joining existing systems in Beijing, Kunming, and Hangzhou.  Several more bus rapid transit systems are slated to open in nine other major cities, providing a high-quality, low-cost solution to mass transit needs and establish a transportation infrastructure for Smart Growth cities.   China is also expanding subway lines in Beijing and other cities.  Last week, I rode the brand new subway line that takes passengers from Beijing Capitol Airport right into downtown. I’ve been waiting for a rail connection from Dulles Airport into Washington DC for years.   

Does more need to be done? Yes.   

NRDC and other groups are working on Smart Growth projects in China’s major cities to provide transportation options other than personal vehicles.  As Chinese cities expand upwards with high-rises and outwards with housing developments, Smart Growth tools such as bus-based rapid transit provide commuters with a practical alternative to traffic-jammed roads.  Higher fuel economy standards will insure that new cars use less energy and emit less pollution.   With some luck and a lot of hard work, the next generation vehicles on display at the Beijing Olympics may be a harbinger of what is to come.