China plugs into the electric car
The Asian giant and largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet has turned to electric vehicles to improve air quality in its smog-filled cities.
A thick toxic cloud hangs over the city of Shijiazhuang, home to 10 million people in northern China, which has surpassed Beijing and become the most polluted city in the country. There, in Baoding, Xingtai and the capital, inhabitants are accustomed to heading out of the house wearing face masks to avoid breathing in fumes that cause around one million premature deaths a year.
Consequently, the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases (pumping out 12.4 million kilotonnes of CO2 in 2012) has, for the first time, put the health of its citizens before economic growth and abandoned an industrial model powered by fossil fuels. In 2014, China’s Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, declared a “war on pollution”, and four years on, the Asian giant appears to be winning the battle. Over that period, the concentration of fine particulates in its cities’ skies has been slashed by 32%, thanks to a reduction in the use of coal in power stations combined with a rapid rise in the uptake of electric vehicles.
Sales of this type of vehicle shot up 126% in the first nine months of last year and China has become the largest market for battery-powered cars in the world, ahead of the USA, Europe and Japan. Figures from the Chinese Vehicle Manufacturers Association show 777,000 new electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles hit the Asian giant’s streets in 2017.
According to the Spanish newspaper El País, the specialist consultancy firm Jato has highlighted that “the growth of the Chinese market is crucial for the development of electric vehicles”. “The Asian country’s state policies”, the firm points out, “are geared towards balancing increased demand for vehicles with its major pollution problem”.
The explosion of the Chinese electric vehicle market has been sparked by aggressive policies introduced to replace old internal combustion-engine vehicles. El País reports that, “As from 2019, any company manufacturing or importing into China more than 30,000 vehicles must ensure at least 10% of them are electric or plug-in hybrids”. This quota will rise to 12% in 2020 and is expected to continue increasing. Any company unable to meet these quotas must buy credits from those exceeding the thresholds, pay a fine or abandon the Chinese market”.
Leaders in production
But China’s efforts to improve air quality in its cities may also have been a master stroke, guaranteeing its leadership in vehicle manufacturing. The Asian giant, which has been unable to compete with the major European, Japanese and South Korean brands in the past, could become the largest exporter of cars not only Made in China, but also produced by Chinese manufacturers.
“China’s goal of boosting the use of electric vehicles to solve its emissions problem has seen the country take the helm in developing this technology. This leadership in the sector means China now has the opportunity to conquer global markets and compete with western manufacturers”, says the consultancy firm Jato.
This has prompted European car makers to turn their attention to the oriental country, not only to produce its vehicles but also to sell them. Volkswagen has pledged to invest 10 billion euros by 2025 to work with the Chinese firm JAC Motors to develop and produce 40 new electric models targeted at the local market. The Renault-Nissan group, meanwhile, plans to produce a low cost model to sell in China in 2019 for less than 10,000 euros.
The European market for electric cars is also growing rapidly, although at a more moderate rate than in China. In the first nine months of 2017, sales went up 42% to 100,000 units. However, according to the 2018 Cetelem Motor Observatory, a greater share (36%) of buyers intend to purchase this type of vehicle than a diesel vehicle, approaching the figure for petrol vehicles.
So why are sales not rising at the same rate as in China? A survey by the startup Clicars.com has found that two out of three Spaniards would buy an electric car if they cost less than 15,000 euros. Such a vehicle will probably be a Chinese low cost car.