China's car craze fuelled by policies

15:23, April 26, 2010      

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It is fashionable to hit on the green theme nowadays as the world has revved up scrutiny of human impacts on the worsening global climate.

But in reality, government policies are often driven by carts going in opposite directions.

A week ago, China's National Energy Commission, headed by Premier Wen Jiabao, publicized the country's lofty energy plan that by 2020 non-fossil fuels will have to account for 15 percent of its gross energy consumption, and the meeting made it a binding target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by at least 40 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. By all accounts, the policy ought to be applauded.

However, the goal is not going to be aided, but offset, by the government's industrial policies to inspire growth. In early 2009 to help cushion the economy against the world global recession in many years, the State Council, also led by Premier Wen, cut drastically the rate of vehicle purchase taxes in China's desperate effort to boost consumption. As a result, the country was ushered into an explosive time of car rush.

Though the numbers have occasionally buoyed the policymakers, with double-digit GDP growth rates and the country overtaking the United States as world's largest car consumer, accompanying the rosy figures are dreadful facts: gridlocked city roads, rapidly rising oil imports and dirtier air that we have to inhale every second.

To make things even more intimidating, now is, perhaps, just the beginning of China's all-out dash for astonishingly high car ownership, if the United States is deemed the model where nine out of 10 residents own a vehicle.

The euphoria for the wheels runs so feverish that the country's newspaper advertisings, television commercials and online homepage pop-ups are all sedans, vans and SUVs, of both domestic brands and overseas logos. At the just-opened Beijing Auto Show, all the global car-manufacturing giants have brought with them stylishly new line-ups, and, are elbowing each other for a bigger slice of the country's new-found wealth.

Shrouded by the car-owning frenzy, few could see the perils. Seldom anyone counts the longer hours we are stuck in the traffic, and who cares the filthier air, fouled by the tailpipe gas emissions, which is consumed by our elderly retired parents and our toddlers and school children?

Take Beijing for an example. Before hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, the city had gone all out to increase the number of blue sky days. The torch put out, the financial crisis erupted. To rack up consumption and responding to the Central Government's appeal to go to car dealerships, Beijingers bought more than 2,000 new cars each day. Official statistics showed that it took six years for the city's car ownership to rise from 1 million to 2 million by 2003, another four years to reach 3 million by 2007, and just two years to hit 4 million by the end of 2009.

Although the city administration has resorted to temporary traffic restriction that bans one-fifth of the car population from driving every work-day, the traffic often snarls and congestion remains unbearable. Worse, the 4 million cars are emitting 1 million tons of pollutants each year, accounting for half of the city's total emissions.

The city used to advocate green modes of transportation, and tried to educate residents about environmental concerns. But, quite ironically, many low-rate bike parking sites are being closed, and lanes once exclusive for cycling are cut out and fenced for motors. In a bid to boost local GDP, officials now say there is actually room for more cars in the city.

Some experts have asked for a timely readjustment of Central Government policy to discourage oil consumption by reinstituting a higher duty on car ownership, encourage electric and new-energy vehicle manufacturing, and vigorously grow public transit system, typically the underground metro network and inter-city transit. Because, a country run on steel wheels is much firmer and healthier than on rubber wheels.

By cooling off the public craze for private wheels, China could lead the world in conserving fossil fuel, deliver smoother street movement, and protect the precious air which all of us breathe.

By People's Daily Online


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