Will the future of electric vehicles – and environmental regulation – now pass through China?

CHINA — This article is being written as Southern California begins a weeklong “Storm Watch” and the network of freeways crisscrossing the L.A.-Orange County-Inland Empire region come to a screeching halt, what with local drivers figuring out how to drive in rainy conditions. Drivers will no doubt spend more time in traffic during the current stretch of SoCal’s rainy days, but freeway volume in the L.A./O.C./I.E. region won’t ever rival the jammed congestion roadies experienced on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway and China National Highway during the summer of 2010. Chinese drivers had reportedly been stuck on the freeway for as long as nine or 10 days. Clearly there are a lot of cars in China – and a high volume of automobiles in a city like Beijing, where nearly 25 million people call home, means there are significant environmental implications to getting behind the wheel. Can the electric vehicle help China mitigate at least some of the environmental fallout associated with automobile use, particularly in the country’s large metropolitan areas?

China, as it turns out, hopes to make a big leap into the electric vehicle space this year. The world’s most populous country has implemented new quotas to promote the manufacture of electric vehicles. A BBC News report indicated automobile companies would no longer be allowed to solely rely on production of combustion-engine vehicles. Fines could be imposed on manufacturers who don’t meet established quotes for electric vehicle production and sales.

The new quota system, which went into effect at the start of 2019, hopes to ultimately reduce carbon emissions by requiring automobile manufacturers to ramp up production of new-energy vehicles, or NEVs. Fuel-cell cars, plug-in hybrids and pure-battery electronic vehicles all qualify as an NEV.

Regulation of environmental standards in China has been an ongoing effort since the Asian country passed the Environmental Protection Law in 1979, according to the Library of Congress. Regional air pollution has been on the uptick in eastern and central China, for example. Urban areas are usually the hardest hit by air pollution and carbon emissions – mostly from coal burning, industrial production and automobile use 

“Air pollution and carbon emissions in China have mainly been attributable to coal burning and industrial production during the early stage of economic development,” a Library of Congress study on China’s air pollution regulation stated. “In urban areas, especially megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, emissions from vehicles have become an increasing problem. 

Emissions from sulfur dioxide and total suspended particulates, to be fair, have been diminishing, according to the Library of Congress study. But the concentration of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone is “worsening,” the study continued.

“Regional air pollution problems are becoming significant.  Sometimes vast regions, such as all of eastern and central China, are under very high concentrations of [fine particulate matter] and [ground-level ozone],” the Library of Congress study pointed out.

The Chinese government, accordingly, has been developing national policies to address various environmental concerns – including incentives for automobile manufacturers to ramp up electric vehicles.

“The government has recognized that air pollution is severe and that the pressure to control pollution is expected to increase due to growing energy consumption resulting from the industrialization and urbanization of the country,” the Library of Congress study stated. “Air pollution has been addressed in a series of national policies, including the national five-year plans for economic and social development, which set clean-air targets for the country with corresponding time limits.”

China is currently on its 13th five-year plan, which runs from 2016 to 2020. The plan aims to reduce emissions, ensure compliance of established standards and promote the use of clean energy.

A New York Times report published on Jan. 2, meanwhile, pointed out the Chinese government halted production of 500-plus car models not meeting fuel economy standards.

“[It is] the latest move by Beijing to reduce emissions in the world’s largest auto market and [part of an effort to] take the lead in battling climate change,” the New York Times report stated.

The story added China “now produces more than a quarter of the world’s human-caused greenhouse gases. 

“Chinese leaders are under intense pressure to rein in dangerous air pollution, a hot-button issue in China, where thick smog has at times forced schools and businesses to temporarily shut down,” the New York Times Jan. 2 story continued.

Cornering China’s domestic electric vehicle market is just the beginning – a Chinese automaker plans to introduce its own electric vehicle line in the United States in 2020. Quiantu Motor announced plans in December 2018 to bring its K50 electric vehicle to the U.S. market at some point next year – potentially challenging Tesla, according to a story published by QZ.com. The QZ.com story added Quiantu does face a few challenges, such as U.S.-imposed tariffs and competition from other carmakers also hoping to enter the electric vehicle space, such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Subaru. Those three automobile manufacturers already have an established presence in the United States.

The electric vehicle market, of course, is a two-way street, what with American automobile manufacturers hoping to break into the world’s largest consumer market. General Motors, for example, already offers the Chevrolet Bolt in China and plans to expand its offerings with a Cadillac-branded electric vehicle, according to Nikkei Asian Review. Ford, in a partnership with Chinese manufacturer Zotye Automobile Co, could infuse more than one dozen electric vehicles and hybrids to the China market by 2025, according to news reports.

Also planning to ramp up its electric vehicle presence in China is Volkswagen AG. The German automaker could bring as many as 40 new NEVs to the Chinese market by 2030, according to Bloomberg News. BMW AG, meanwhile, will soon be introducing two pure-electric cars to the Chinese market in 2020, the Bloomberg News report continued.

Japanese automobile manufacturers such as Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota are also expected to enter the fray.

 Time will tell whether China’s efforts to address air pollution, carbon emissions and greenhouse gases would yield positive results.