How China is going from being the most polluting country in the world to investing in sustainable transport

by Carla Coppola

With 1.3 billion people the most populous country in the world is also one of the fastest growing economies coming a close second behind the USA in the race to be the largest (and most powerful) economy in the world. As of 2010 China is also the largest industrialised nation accounting for a fifth of the global manufacturing and despite what is well believed by elderly occidental generations with middle class incomes increasing. This rise of the middle class is going to speed up to 30% a year and in 3 years time according to the Economist producing in China will be as convenient and easy as in North America with the difference that China will be more efficient. In the past decades China has also shown a different attitude to the world by changing its centrally planned system in favour of a more market-oriented approach to international trade. The automobile market in China is the biggest in its category with 18.5 million vehicles sold in 2011; production has also increased by 4.8% in 2012 compared to the previous year and an increase of sales of 3.56% from January to July 2012 in respect to the same period in 2011.

The increase in quality of life in more and more Chinese families pushes them to buy new cars – often preferring Chinese own national models – despite the rising cost of imported oil and significant congestion problems. That is where the government has to take actions and in part is already doing so starting with the big metropolises. In a recent article published in the New York Times Keith Bradsher describes how the municipal government of Guangzhou (15 million people and main manufacturing hub of the region) has introduced a license plate limit to tackle congestion problems.

Guangzhou’s plan is in line with the ambition to improve citizens’ quality of life; in the past few years the city has seen a huge enlargement of the underground and rail tracks as well as the building of more green areas. According to Bradsher NYT’s Hong Kong bureau chief China “is becoming a modern industrialised economy whose leaders increasingly listen to public opinion and seek to balance the environment social welfare and many other issues against economic growth and higher costs to achieve a more balanced and sustainable economy”.

Indeed energy efficiency carbon emissions reduction and use of new energies are among the priorities of the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) designed by the People’s Republic government. This plan sets up priorities for the transport sector among others and foresees an extension of the national road network with ambitions to reach 85000 km of total motorway length and 300000 km of total rural road length.

Regarding greener ambitions the government has also launched side initiatives aiming to reach these goals including the China Green Freight Initiative (CGFI). This initiative backed up by the Ministry of Transport and the China Road Transport Association (CRTA) in April 2012 represents a further step towards the country’s fuel efficiency and reduction of emissions policy. The CGFI identifies priorities for the next 3 to 5 years beginning with establishing a strong cooperation amongst the stakeholders involved (government bodies associations private companies) as well as promoting the green freight concept and supporting good practices.

Put this way China’s incredibly fast development large economy but significant amount of pollution is leading the Chinese government to rethink how they deal with the transport emissions. Transport is an essential vehicle of development but it is also one of the major polluters; China like the EU is starting to realise that it must attempt to deal with the increasing pressures put on its transport system to bring down pollution levels and try to provide more liveable cities.

That is why despite the increase in car ownership a great importance is given to railway networks and public transport in general as Yanying Li Senior Project Manager at ERTICO explains. “Sustainable transport is a very popular concept in China and ITS is providing a great help to the government to find new solutions to encourage people to use more public transport”.

Dr Li is also the coordinator of the Viajeo project that with its two test sites in China (Beijing and Shanghai) has the main scope to design and implement an open platform to facilitate data sharing and information exchanging thus improving existing services and enabling new services. In Beijing Viajeo offers real-time multimodal journey for public transport by using a bus data management system provided by Thetis (specialist in public transport). This is based on real time bus location from bus companies and floating vehicle data from the BTRC (Beijing Transport Research Institute) which provides a detailed information on current traffic situation. In Shanghai the Viajeo platform also links traffic with air pollution data to better understand the impact of the road traffic on the environment. This will be done by using the parameters of the European Handbook of Emission Factors (HBEFA) which will help identify air pollution concentration in the city based on current traffic situations which can help short-term traffic management strategies and long-term planning.

Another interesting development of green development in China concerns electric bikes; already the leader of conventional bike production China has recently imposed itself as the biggest producer and exporter of e-bikes with over 22 million units produced and 370000 exported in 2009. A recent study conducted by Pike Research shows that the global market for e-bikes will increase drastically between 2012 and 2018 reaching the enormous amount of 47 million units sold in 2018 and generating a revenue of $11.9 billion (over €9 billion) by 2018. Unsurprisingly China is expected to account for 89% of the total market with 42 million of those electric vehicles.

Yet concerns emerge as e-bikes become the favourite means of transport in China. Electric bicycles are very energy efficient however they are not entirely pollution-free (like any means of transport including even human bodies). The batteries of the bikes tend to be manufactured from lead giving grave concerns about lead pollution also the electricity used to recharge the vehicles come from the power grid relying either on coal or hydro power depending on which part of the country they are used. Alternative – and more expensive – technologies are available and would involve a great effort from the government to persuade industry. 

Nonetheless despite lead pollution and safety concerns (cities like Guangzhou Dongguan and Shenzhen have banned e-bikes from some districts) electric bicycles have the real advantage of improving mobility and accessibility. They are faster than conventional bikes and even if slower than buses they allow users to be more mobile especially for short trips and ease the access to shops and services in ever growing congested cities. Without forgetting that there are many small businesses that rely on the use of these bikes for example for carrying tools and goods.

Sustainability is a very trendy word these days and can mean many things but for countries like China it means research and investment above all. Despite the global financial crisis China increased its national investments in research and development (R&D) devoting 5-10% of the total to transport research (estimate by the Ministry of Science and Technology – MOST). R&D funding includes investments in infrastructure high-speed trains electromobility congestion reduction and mitigation of air pollution.

Competitive China is also showing interest in cooperating closely with international partners. Many activities involving European Union-China cooperation have been successfully completed; in May 2012 an EU delegation had a bilateral meeting on transport and ITS in Beijing. During this meeting several common priorities were identified such as smart mobility energy efficiency and standardisation with the meeting concluding with a declaration of intent to continue the information exchange between the EU and China and the cooperation on these priorities.

However some negative factors have a strong impact on international cooperation. According to a study conducted by Dr Li the players involved in this cooperation share different priorities as European researchers focus on demonstrating and establishing already existing products and technologies while generally Chinese researchers are more competitiveness oriented. Last but not least “Chinese researchers are often surprised by how little knowledge on China and Chinese research activities foreign partners have”.

This is a crucial point. China is among the players who can really make the difference in the global economy and not only in the transport and ITS industry. Other players need to recognise that China can provide solutions and examples itself and must learn more about Chinese conditions and research priorities if they wish to fully benefit from partnership.

The year of the mighty dragon is only half way through and will be followed by the year of the snake a great mediator and very good at doing business.

For more information on ERTICO activities in China please contact Vincent Blervaque.

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Original Publication Date: Tue 18 Sep 2012