The culmination of last year’s APEC Summit in Beijing delivered a climate accord between the United States and China. The agreement, received with mixed reviews, should perhaps be taken as a case of significance over substance. The deal signifies the first time China has agreed to peak its CO2 emissions, with President Xi Jinping calling for an ‘energy revolution’ in an effort to reach ‘deep decarbonisation’ of the global economy.
The accord states that China intends to peak CO2 emissions by 2030, making its best efforts to do so early. However, a study by China’s Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) suggests slowing rates of urbanisation would already likely result in emissions peaking between 2025-2030. The 2014 UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report also reveals that China is among a select group of nations on track to meeting emission-reduction goals by the end of the decade. Thus, those in the camp of cynics argue that the deal is watered down and too easy to achieve.
This however, does not limit reform on the ground. China’s transport sector is receiving increasingly assertive measures as Beijing moves to address congestion and pollution.
Shenzhen, one of the usual plots for litmus testing reform, is the latest city to join Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and others in restricting car purchases. Beijing’s cuts reduce the quota of license plates from 240,000 down to 150,000, with plans to issue just 90,000 to ordinary cars by 2017. Auto emissions in the city account for around 25-30% of PM2.5 particulate matter, as heavy traffic slows the average speed of motorists to 15km an hour.
Last year, central authorities pushed to remove 6 million vehicles failing to meet emissions standards off the roads. That’s around the same number of vehicles currently on Beijing’s roads. 2015 will see a further 5 million vehicles removed from the highly developed cluster regions of the Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei zone.
The Ministry of Finance (MOF) has extended clean vehicle subsidies due to expire in 2015 for a further 5 years. Under new draft rules, owners of electric cars, hybrids, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are entitled to receive subsidies of up to $8,834. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, year-on-year sales of electric and hybrid vehicles are increasing. Local carmakers produced 83,900 electric vehicles in 2014, a four-fold increase year-on-year, but still a tiny fraction of the industry’s total production.
Public transport is also receiving renewed attention. By 2018 Beijing will replace 80% of public buses with new-energy and clean-fuel units. The Beijing Commission of Transport have announced plans for 13,825 buses, including 4,058 electric and 7,185 natural gas powered units will replace those running on gas and diesel. This month authorities tested new 18-meter long electric buses (nicknamed ‘electric catfish’) in the Fuwaidajie Transit Hub in Beijing.
However, without harsher measures, China looks likely to fall far short of its goal of having 5 million hybrid and electric cars on its roads by 2020. Several roadblocks are hindering Xi’s ‘energy revolution’ in the transport sector.
Encouraging a shift to away from traditional transport is proving no easy task. Falling oil prices- at their lowest since 2009- have led to a surge in larger vehicles globally. Increases to Beijing’s subway fares could also be considered another factor, small as it may be. Another issue is only locally manufactured vehicles are entitled to the announced subsidy. However, the real indifference appears to stem from a lack of charging infrastructure and embedded consumer behaviour. Servicing a large fleet of electric cars is difficult in most countries, but China’s population is largely localised in apartment buildings making it difficult to charge cells. Furthermore, the country has no unified charging standards.
In order to boost clean vehicle usage, Beijing plans to establish 100 natural gas stations and over 2000 charging posts across the city. Trials for charging stations have also started along the Shanghai-Beijing expressway in a joint project between the State Grid Corporation and numerous companies. However, such a journey would require around 6 charges, with each charge requiring roughly half an hour. Although costing around half the price of a usual journey by car, it is obvious electric vehicles are less suited to longer trips.
The government is not acting alone.
In December, Boston Power, a global player in electric vehicle battery design and production, secured $290 million in local government support to expand the company’s China facilities. The sector is also attracting new market entrants with Jia Yueting, founder of Leishi Internet Information and Technology Co. has developed an electric car with plans to rival the established Tesla, who already have 9 stores and service centers in six Chinese cities- the largest network outside of the United States.
Infrastructure development and new market entrants may be the kick-start needed to deliver change.
Mark Eels is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.