After the Spring Festival holiday, the almost ten-day period of heavy smog in Beijing completely erased locals’ illusion that the air pollution in the winter of 2013 had already seen significant progress. This cruel reality once again reminds people that air quality improvement cannot be achieved in a short period of time. The campaign-style of environment management is not an effective prescription to China’s persistent air pollution.

Wang Tao
Wang Tao was a nonresident scholar in the Energy and Climate Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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Academics have reached a general consensus on the cause of smog after rounds of debate. In northern China, the burning of coal at heating plants, iron plants, steel plants, cement plants, and other heavy industry as well as car exhausts is indisputably the primary source of emission. However, in a megacity such as Beijing, automobile emissions, instead, is considered number one source of pollution. Research conducted by a special team studying “causes and controls of atmospheric haze” at the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates that automobile emissions are the greatest contributor to the PM2.5 pollution in Beijing, accounting for almost one-fourth of the total pollution. This figure is confirmed by data from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center which puts the proportion at 22.2%. Since automobile exhaust is emitted at ground level near people’s height and has a positive correlation with population density, automobile emissions within city limits has a particularly significant impact on people’s health.

Automobile emissions come from numerous sources and thus, it is difficult to conduct direct monitoring. Therefore, most research calculates automobile emissions by studying other indicators such as total fuel consumption and emission standards. Compared with most areas in China that are still using the National III fuel standard for gasoline and diesel (where sulfur content should no more than 150 ppm), Beijing started to provide gasoline and diesel of National V fuel standard (where sulfur content should be no more than 10 ppm) as early as 2012, which is similar to the current EU standard. Automobiles have also been required to meet the National V emission standard to reduce pollutants in emissions since 2013. The measures have placed strict restrictions on emissions from automobiles. It seems that both automobile fuel and emissions in Beijing are very clean. Thus, the excessive amount of registered vehicles in Beijing is the main cause for the heavy smog. However, this conclusion ignores some key details.

First of all, traffic congestion persists in Beijing. With a total amount of 5.4 million vehicles, Beijing has long been dubbed as the “traffic jam capital.” Due to some miscalculations in Beijing’s urban planning, a large portion of Beijing residents commute from the downtown area to the residential areas such as the famous “sleeping towns” in the Tongzhou district and the Huilongguan community. Due to the deficiencies in the public transportation system’s capacity and density of transport users, Beijing’s public transportation system is already under heavy pressure. Still, a great number of local residents drive every day. The traffic flow magnitude in downtown Beijing is far beyond that in other similar international metropolises such as London, New York and Tokyo. The heavy traffic during rush hour has led to the slowdown of automobile speed to only 20 kilometers per hour. At low speeds, automobiles consume more fuel. Their emissions will be several times of their normal level due to incomplete combustion. To solve the traffic congestion problem and reduce the use of automobiles in the downtown area has undoubtedly become the most effective and economical way to reduce automobile emission.

In addition, thousands of diesel trucks transport necessities into Beijing and carry garbage and construction waste out of the city every day. To reduce costs, these diesel trucks are not as well maintained, and they will choose to fill fuel tanks with National III standard or even lower standard fuels, such as the low-quality diesel from local refineries but cheaper, before they enter Beijing.

The PM 2.5 readings of Beijing’s smog rise rather than drop at night. This is because these diesel trucks flock to the city during the night when they are no longer banned from entering. The trucks stay in the city until early in the morning when the large flow of vehicles heading to offices and other work places re-appear. The emissions of each heavy-duty diesel truck equals to that of several dozen cars. The diesel consumed by the trucks is not bought in Beijing so that the consumption is not covered by the statistics from Beijing. But much of that is discharged in Beijing. At the same time, the use of diesel vehicles is not limited to trucks. There are also many heavy-duty diesel vehicles in Beijing that use low-standard diesel engines including a great many public buses, cars, and heavy-duty machines. It is hard to tell whether they use Beijing’s National V diesel or the cheap and unclean diesel refueled outside of Beijing.

Thirdly, although Beijing stipulates high standards for emissions and fuel, it is hard to get a clear picture of how this is implemented. Beijing has many old cars that have expired but still are in use. After Beijing abolished the mandatory elimination of vehicles based on its years of service in 2013, yearly inspection of automobile has become the only basis for mandatory elimination. In fact, I myself have more than once been told by taxi drivers that their taxis could only pass the examination at inspection field appointed by their own company. The cars will fail to pass the exam if they went to other inspection fields. Beijing has about 66,000 taxis in service, not a very big number. But these cars run between 300 to 400 kilometers every day, about ten times the distance a private car runs. That means it is equal to the emission of 660,000 private cars, accounting for one-eighth of the total vehicles in Beijing and for an even more large proportion of vehicles running on roads. Therefore, whether taxis reach the emission standard is a key issue.

Moreover, there are a number of people outside of the inspection field who claim to have a back channel to help drivers pass the examination. It also indicates that many old cars will pass the examination only through these “connections”. According to the international standard of eliminating 7% of total vehicles every year, Beijing should eliminate 350,000 vehicles from the road annually. But statistics indicate the only 63,000 vehicles were eliminated in 2012. Such a considerable gap is itself a mystery: just how many cars are still in use and produce excessive emissions in Beijing apart from those sold outside Beijing and dismantled?

In a word, the contribution of automobile emission to Beijing’s smog might be underestimated instead of overestimated. And the measures taken by the Beijing Municipal Government to curtail emissions such as restrictions on car use based on the last number of a license plate to ease traffic congestion and vehicle registrations via a lottery system or the odd-even numbered car ban during times of heavy pollution, might not effectively ease the congestion and ameliorate smog pollution. (For more information, see Restriction on Use Instead of Purchase to Ease Traffic Congestion and It’s Time to Reform Restrictions on Car-Use According to Last Number on Car Plate.)

For vehicles that are not up to the standard (especially diesel vehicles), the government should enact mandatory measures to enforce technical upgrade or carry out strong penalties. This action needs to be strict in order to eliminate potential loopholes of policy. However, it is not administrative measures that will control the traffic congestion. It needs to take market approach while acknowledge the legitimate travel demand of the public.

In the long run, the goal is to gradually change the distribution of urban function districts and to develop high-density clusters around the core of districts and build satellite cities with mixed functions in order for Beijing to solve its traffic congestion problem. In the short term, it is vital for Beijing to develop a convenient, reliable, and cheap public transportation system and construct an organized public transport priority lane and rail transport network in order to divert the growing demand on private car use. Meanwhile, the government should influence local residents’ preference for driving private cars and encourage them to first consider taking public transportation by establishing measures such as raising parking fees in downtown areas, reducing the number of parking areas, and levying a congestion fare.

As China’s economy continues to develop, vehicles replaced bicycles as the main mode of transportation for local residents in Beijing. However, in the meantime, the gray smog has also replaced the blue sky and white clouds. If someday Beijing should  have a public transportation use rate as high as it is in other international metropolises (such as Hong Kong, New York, and Tokyo) and its local residents choose to pick up their public transportation card instead of their car key, it won’t be too long then for the blue sky and white clouds to reappear.

This article was originally published in Chinese in the Financial Times.