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Electric Cars in China: an ambitious stab at reducing pollution

Posted on September 25th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

China pollution

Polluted Shanghai Skyline (Source: B. Draxler, Discover, January 21, 2014)

I experienced real air pollution when I first traveled to China many years ago.¬† By the time we drove from Pudong International Airport to Shanghai I had developed a serious cough. The vice chairman of the company I was visiting, a diminutive lady who spoke fluent English, asked me whether I had a cold.¬† I replied I did not have one and rather it was the smell in the air that made me cough.¬† The odor was sharp, biting and acidic indicating a high concentration of nitrogen and sulfur dioxides.¬† She proceeded to ask me a question I have not forgotten: ‚Äúdo you smell something?‚Ä̬† It was obvious she had become accustomed to the offending odor.¬† I never saw a ray of sun through the thick smog during the week I spent in Shanghai.¬† It looked similar to what you see in the photograph above.

The combination of burning coal, the most abundant fossil fuel in China, and the ever-increasing number of cars and heavy trucks has ruined the air quality in the towns and cities of China.¬† Every day some 4,400 humans die of pollution according to a new study by Researchers from Berkeley Earth, a California-based climate research organization (¬† They calculated that about 1.6 million people in China die every year from the health issues caused by the country’s extremely polluted air.

Before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, cars were banned from the City and the factories were shut down. Beijing spent more than $10 billion to clean up its horrifying brown pollution prior to the Olympics.  Afterwards most of the clean up disappeared and Beijing returned to virtually the same state of pollution.  China has been criticized harshly for its air pollution.  Scientists have determined an appreciable portion of air pollution in China comes from the industries outsourced from other countries.  The poisonous air of China travels and contaminates the skies of other countries.  Ironically, data has revealed about 20% of China’s air pollution lands on the western US States.

China’s government has just declared it would move towards a ban on gas-guzzlers according to an article in the September 14, 2017 issue of The Economist.  No timeline has been suggested. China already has decided on ambitious medium-term goals for automotive efficiency and climate change, including a cap on carbon emissions by 2030.  Experts think the auto ban might come into force around that time. It is unclear whether the ban will include only pure-petrol cars or also plug-in hybrids that combine petrol engines with electric motors.  Disregarding, China has already gotten a jump on the manufacturing and sale of fully electric vehicles (EV).

There are nearly 300 million drivers and 200 million cars in China.  It is hard to imagine Chinese people’s dependence on cars would cease any time soon.  The only hope is to turn their interest from petroleum burning to electric cars.  China’s announcement came at the heel of the declarations by Britain and France to ban gasoline fueled cars in 2040, and after India’s commitment to phase out their oil-guzzling machines by 2020 (Source: L. Poon, CITYLAB,, Sep 14, 2017).  In the case of China it is the proverbial killing two birds with one stone.  Not only the emissions generated by hundreds of millions of cars will be eventually eliminated, but the country’s auto industry will also be revolutionized.  It would manufacture cars for both domestic and export markets.  China will also benefit from the foreign car companies competition to secure a chunk of its automobile market through partnerships with local automakers.

China’s sale of electric vehicles far surpasses Europe and the US.  In 2016 over 500,000 EVs (~65% made domestically) were sold Рan increase of 53% from 2015.   In comparison, the figures for Europe and the US are 222,000 and 157,000 during the same year.  China has projected the sale of 800,000 vehicles in 2017. Even if that forecast materializes, it is still a tiny fraction of the 200 million cars in use in China.  A key impediment for EV growth is the infrastructure for economical charging stations.  Yet China is the leader in the number of public charging points in the world, currently about 150,000.   Comparatively, there are 16,000 such stations in the US.

Chinas government has been pushing EVs aggressively, most recently by introducing strict regulations.  The domestic automakers will be required to manufacture 8% of their total sales as electric or plug-in hybrid cars by 2018, thereafter gradually ramping up.  By 2025, China hopes EVs will make up 20% of total vehicle production and sales.  Auto industry has complained about the rapid pace of conversion to electric vehicles but the government has not budged.  A list of Chinese-made electric cars can be found at

By 2020, China intends to have a nationwide network of charging stations large enough to support a whopping 5 million electric vehicles.¬† The experts are concerned that in spite of intense aspirations for EVs, there has not been sufficient planning for such a massive transformation.¬† Dr. Henry Lee, the director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University, says: “I don’t get a sense that China has thought through the charging issue, and the economics of it. Nor do I think that they have a business plan for it.”¬† That may be the case but one point is clear: ¬†if China with a population of 1.4 billion people and the largest auto market in the world says no more fossil fuel-powered cars; global car makers must and will follow.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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