China’s rise to world economic heavyweight status owes in large part to massive industrial might and permissive environmental regulations to help prop up that might. One unwelcome side effect has been headline-grabbing, citizen-sickening levels of pollution.
Now, in (one more) sign that the People’s Republic is starting to take its huge environmental impact seriously, the country has declared aggressive new fuel economy standards for passenger cars. Authorities want cars for sale in China to average 6.9 gallons per 100 km (34 mpg US) by 2015 and for them to reach at least 5 liters per 100 km (47 mpg US) by 2020. Analysts watching China’s burgeoning car market say the move will make business tough for the nation’s automakers, as it will require them to invest in expensive research and development for newer technologies.
While that may be the case, it’s already well-established that technology exists to wring much greater fuel economy out of modern automobiles, including those that run on fossil fuels. A brief list:
- start-stop technology that cuts the engine at stops to reduce idling
- lightweight building materials such as aluminum or carbon fibor reinforced plastic for body panels
- drive-by-wire controls that replace heavy, wear-prone mechanical linkages<
- hybrid engines that have computerized efficiency-maximizing modes
- regenerative brakes that capture kinetic energy and re-use it (on hybrids)
Other techniques include using turbochargers on smaller, more efficient engines instead of building cars with larger displacement engines; and designing the contours of the car to slip through the air more easily.
The Rocky Mountain Institute a few years ago proposed a 100 miles per gallon, SUV-sized vehicle called the Hypercar. It wasn’t intended specifically as a production vehicle, but rather, as an idea platform to showcase the many ways in which ultra-high fuel economy was possible.
As for China, the new fuel economy ruling is a welcome departure from the common attitude that economic expedience trumps environmental concerns. China, for one, has balked in the past at international carbon-limiting proposals that it said were unfair. The argument: developed countries like the United States polluted their way to profit and success, before the phenomenon of human-aggravated climate de-stabilization was well known.
With about 1.3 billion of the world’s 7 billion or so people, anything China does in the area of environmental policy is likely to have a noticeable impact.
Perhaps one of the most lasting images concerning China’s environmental stance is that of the soupy haze that blankets many cities, including Beijing when it played host to the world at the 2012 Olympic Games. It’s the result of rampant coal-fired energy production, lax emissions controls on industry, and increasing use of motor vehicles. The wearing of breathing masks in public and the incidence of respiratory diseases are common.
It makes sense that China’s government would want to pursue ambitious steps to rein in the country’s need for oil, a fossil fuel that contributes to climate de-stabilization and pollution. Currently, many Chinese citizens view themselves as “graduating” from riding bicycles to driving cars, and demand for cars has exploded in recent years (though softening a bit more recently).
For the sake off all of us who share the planet, let’s hope this isn’t the last sweeping effort we hear out of China in the name of environmental reform.