US car fumes: a call to arms for China

Gas-guzzling America has tightened controls on vehicle emissions in a move green advocates hope will spur Beijing to greater action. Zhang Ke listens to the views of two experts.

This year, the United States – home to the world’s least efficient passenger vehicles – tightened greenhouse-gas and fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks. It now has the strictest in the world. China, meanwhile, is struggling to implement its existing controls on pollutants from car exhausts, which do not presently cover carbon dioxide, and the timetable for bringing in tighter rules has been repeatedly pushed back. So what lessons can China draw from the new US policy? 

Lin Jiang, senior vice president of the Energy Foundation (a partnership of donors focused on sustainable energy) last month met with Michael Walsh, chairman of the board of directors of the International Council on Clean Transportation, to discuss the background to and significance of the new US standards.

As experts in sustainable energy and transportation, Lin and Walsh have both made frequent calls for China urgently to enforce its existing vehicle emissions regulation – “National Emission Standard III” – which sets limits for carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter. They have also pushed for rapid implementation of “National Emission Standard IV”, the next level up and the equivalent to Euro 4, the European vehicle emissions standard, as a means to cut pollution from road transport. 

One reason for this is that the United States, long the fuel-economy laggard, is implementing new standards that will see it leapfrog China in efforts to create greener road transportation. 

In the 1970s, the United States became the first nation to implement compulsory standards for fuel-efficiency – the amount of fuel used per unit of distance travelled – with its Energy Policy and Conservation Act. But as the price of oil fell, so did levels of government and public concern over fuel consumption. 

“For a while, half of all passenger vehicles in the US were fuel-hungry light trucks or SUVs,” explained Walsh. “Among the major developed nations, the US has always had the least efficient passenger vehicles.” This is partly because US car makers have blocked efforts to improve standards, and so their technology lags behind that of their competitors. 

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of oil, burning one quarter of global production. In 2010, America consumed an average of 19.28 million barrels of oil a day, most of this as fuel for vehicles. 

But now fresh efforts are being made to clean up and modernise America’s vehicles. Lin said: “The US government wants to revitalise its automobile industry, and these standards are an important method of promoting technological innovation.” But, unlike the old days where government and business were in conflict, he said, these new rules have emerged though consultation between the two parties. 

In May this year, the United States released greenhouse-gas and fuel-economy standards, which apply to any new cars coming online between 2012 and 2016. These standards are expected to cut fuel consumption by 40% and carbon emissions by 50%. From 2017 to 2025, light vehicles are expected to see annual fuel-economy improvements of 5%. In August, the government released its first greenhouse-gas and fuel-economy standard for heavy-duty vehicles for 2014 to 2018. This mandates that, by 2017, carbon emissions of tractor-trailers (also known as articulated lorries) will fall by at least 9% on a 2010 baseline. 

Thanks to these standards, said Lin, by 2030 the United States will have saved the equivalent of 770 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (710 million tonnes from light-duty vehicles, 60 million tonnes from heavy-duty). This is equal to closing 190 coal-burning power stations – or 40% of all coal-burning power stations in the United States. The policy will also save approximately US$350 billion (2.2 trillion yuan) in fuel costs over the lifespan of the vehicles, he said. 

The state of California played an important role in drafting these new standards, Walsh explained. “California has always been a pioneer in enforcing the US Clean Air Act,” he said. “California is unique, in that it allows stricter standards than those required in federal law.”

The west-coast state is the country’s most economically developed and populous. It is also home to much heavy industry. Air pollution kills more Californians each year than car accidents. 

“In 1970, California won special powers to use local policy to solve its dire air-pollution problems,” said Walsh. In 2004, the state passed a policy restricting greenhouse-gas emissions, requiring that, by 2009, vehicles meet strict carbon-dioxide emission standards. Other states subsequently expressed a desire to follow suit. 

But for car makers, this was complicated. National fuel-economy standards were low, but many states, led by California, were aiming to set higher carbon-dioxide emission standards. 

“The manufacturers couldn’t make different cars according to different state standards,” said Walsh. The result was that the auto companies also wanted to see national emission standards set. That prompted the US Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency and several car makers to sit down and coordinate fuel economy and greenhouse-gas emission standards. Eventually, they agreed that, by 2016, carbon-dioxide emission targets would fall in line with those in California. 

The most recent estimates indicate that vehicles built between 2017 and 2025 will save four billion barrels of oil and two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over their lifespan. Lin estimates that the new standards will bring about US$10 billion in investment in energy efficiency research and development. 

Lin said: “the US is gearing up to surpass China, becoming the more fuel efficient nation in 2025 – unless China takes action.”

The last 15 years have seen China shift from self-sufficiency in oil to being the world’s largest oil importer, mainly due to the rapid growth in the number of vehicles on the road. China is the world’s biggest automobile market, and is currently considering fuel-economy and greenhouse-gas emission standards for vehicles. But, for experts like Walsh and Lin, the pace of change is frustratingly sluggish. 

Walsh said he can’t understand why China acted so decisively over eliminating lead in fuel (use of leaded fuel in road vehicles was banned in 2000) but progress in implementing National Emissions Standard III and IV has been so slow. These measures, he said, are crucial for saving energy, reducing emissions and cutting pollution from vehicles. 

In June this year, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection published a notice requiring that, from July 1, all light vehicles, hybrid vehicles and gas-powered vehicles manufactured, imported or sold in China must meet National Emissions Standard IV. But as it’s proving so hard to get the national diesel supply to meet existing standards, implementing the next level for diesel vehicles has been delayed until January 1, 2012 for heavy vehicles, and July 1, 2013 for light vehicles. 

Lin believes that, at the least, the US policy changes should prompt the Chinese government to set standards for passenger vehicles up to 2025 in order to spur domestic firms to invest in fuel-efficient technology and retain competitiveness. And, by the end of 2012, Beijing should set world-leading standards for fuel-economy in heavy vehicles. This would boost China’s energy security by reducing oil imports, while cutting costs for consumers and lowering greenhouse-gas emissions, he said.

Zhang Ke is a reporter at China Business News, where this article was originally published.

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