Last year China, the world’s biggest vehicle market, signaled its intension to ban the production and sale of fossil fuel cars in a bid to ease pollution and curb the thick smog of exhaust fumes that covers much of major cities such as Beijing.
Gas Guzzler Ban
The move thrust China into the race to lead the electric-vehicle market as the world’s second-largest economy tries to reduce its dependence on imported oil. President Xi Jinping’s government has since said it would implement new electric vehicle production quotas, as it targets a seven-fold increase in sales and as the mooted ban on gas guzzlers edges closer to reality.
Volkswagen has already drawn up plans to invest $11.8 billion to build 40 new-energy models in China with local partners, with the goal of making 1.5 million electric vehicles in the country by 2025. Volvo and Ford are also eyeing electric and hybrid car sales in China, with the first set to be on the road by 2019.
Hainan Goes Green
The first Chinese province to go green is Hainan, with reports by Chinese state-run media this week suggesting the region will be the key proving ground for electric car adoption. China plans to phase out sales of cars in Hainan, known as China’s Hawaii for its tropical climate.
The reports did not give further details or provide a timeline on the expected fossil fuel car ban. But they came as President Xi visited the island and initiatives to spur the growth of Hainan’s economy, including establishing a free-trade zone and bolstering its tourism industry, were rolled out.
China’s Green Reform Agenda
Hainan is a symbol not just of China’s ambition to become the world’s leading electric vehicle market, but of its wider “green” reform agenda. Hainan, 62% of which is covered by forest, abolished the traditional GDP assessment system back in 2014. Instead the province made ecological protection among its key measures of economic growth, and the provincial government established a subsidy for ecological protection compensation, which by last year’s count had awarded $75.9 million.
The local government has also been granted a veto power over any infrastructure projects that could harm the environment. In three years, more than 500 projects were rejected.
Preserving Natural Beauty, Native Wildlife
Several other “green” initiatives have sprung up on the tropical Chinese island in recent years, including to preserve its natural beauty and native wildlife. Hainan has supplied much of the sea turtle meat that Chinese consumers have eaten in larger numbers as a new middle class has emerged over the past 30 years.
But that led to a dearth of turtles on the island as their natural habitat has been eroded due to fishing production. This is part of a broader problem: turtle and tortoise populations are in decline. In the 1960s, there were 15,000 central Asian tortoises for every square kilometer in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China. But by the 1980s, this had fallen to six per square kilometer.
Conservation groups have emerged in recent years to restore Hainan’s native wildlife, such as Sea Turtles 911, which has worked to education the local population and raise awareness among tourists of the issues.
The group has rehabilitated dozens of rare and endangered sea turtles by planting sea grass beds in the waters around Hainan, eaten by turtles and other marine life. Sea Turtles 911 is also researching ways to make sea grass more resilient to destructive human activity and the negative effects of climate change.
Environmental Pollution Plagues China
China has of course already tried to transform its economic growth model to more widely focus on the environment, but to date little in the way of large scale change has been achieved. Economic growth has been prioritized above all else.
As a result, China’s administration is faced with the daunting prospect of environmental degradation and its negative impact on quality of life and healthcare in the country. Today the Chinese population faces an increasing risk of lung cancer due to the smog, and unsafe drinking water. It is common to see commuters in major cities sporting surgical masks in an apparent attempt to shield themselves from pollution.
Qi Ye is director of the Climate Policy Institute and a professor of environmental policy and management at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. He writes in McKinsey Quarterly that the Chinese government must take steps to curb the damage being done to the environment.
‘Economic Growth at all Costs’
First, he recommends that tighter laws on pollution control and punishments for violations be put on place. “Many local governments have been reluctant to take responsibility for environmental enforcement amid concern that it will scare investors,” he writes. “Yet instead, they now face angry citizens, who are unwilling to become victims of economic growth at all costs.”
Another problem is that China’s industrial investment, though powering economic growth, is shifting from coastal regions to the country’s inland, where a larger population of people can be exposed to potentially damaging fumes.
The trend will be “a nightmare if pollution spreads wider and deeper into the more ecologically fragile west of the country,” wrote Ye. “Beijing’s new administration should seize the opportunity to rethink where industries are located and, in the process, make industries more environmentally sound and economic growth more sustainable,” he added.
Urbanization, the migration of people from cities to rural areas, is another area where the government can have major positive impact if it incentivizes people to move out of big cities. “Urbanization is a more environmentally sensitive way to industrialize than putting factories in the countryside,” wrote Ye, though he added that “urban areas nevertheless release three times the carbon dioxide per capita of rural areas”.
There is no silver bullet solution. But if China continues to prioritize economic growth there is much at risk: the continued damage done to the environment and its resulting impact on wildlife and health. New rules to curb the use of fossil fuel cars are a good start, but more wide-ranging reforms are needed if China is to avoid an environmental crisis.