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China’s Smog Crisis Brings New Crackdowns

Dave Hurst — November 20, 2013

Harbin, a city of 11 million people in China, saw air pollution hit dubious records in October, reminiscent of pollution levels from Beijing last January.  While the bulk of the pollution is attributed to burning coal for heat and electricity, road pollution has also been cited as a major contributor.  This is not particularly surprising.  The automotive market in China surpassed U.S. sales in 2010 and is on track to sell 19.5 million cars and trucks this year.

The particulate matter cited for contributing to the smog in China is labeled PM2.5 (meaning that it’s 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter and can lodge deep within the lungs).  PM2.5 is mostly produced by burning fuels, such as coal, diesel, or even wood.  In China, diesel vehicles are responsible for 85% of the PM2.5 produced by motor vehicles.  The Chinese Academy of Sciences claims that in Beijing, 23% of PM2.5 is coming from vehicles (which is similar to the 20% the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded comes from motor vehicles in the United States).

A Bit Lax

Beijing, a city of 20.7 million people that is growing at a rate of 2.5% annually and has 5.4 million vehicles, has gone to the extreme to cap vehicle licenses at 6 million vehicles.  Additionally, the government has enacted a number of emissions rules in the last year that target both electricity generation and motor vehicles.  China follows the European Commission in its vehicle emissions rules.  In the most polluting vehicles, heavy duty diesel trucks, emissions restrictions are comparable to Euro IV in most major cities and Euro III nationwide.  However, the follow-through on the restrictions is where more aggressive action may be needed.

Part of the challenge in meeting the emissions restrictions lies within the diesel fuel itself.  While in the United States the sulfur content is required to be below 15 parts per million (ppm), in China the sulfur content varies from 250 ppm to 2,500 ppm across the country.  Engine manufacturers cannot meet Euro IV and V requirements without improved fuel – which means higher cost fuel.  The backlash against higher fuel costs in 2011 was so strong that the government delayed implementation until 2013, pushing back the Euro IV vehicle emissions restrictions nationwide until 2014.

Slower, Cleaner

Another part of the challenge lies with enforcement of the rules already in place.  While new vehicles manufactured generally meet the requirements, enforcement of emissions restrictions from older vehicles tends to be inconsistent nationally.

What does this mean for China’s air pollution?  When greater enforcement has meant higher costs and slower growth, the government has a poor track record of following through.  However, the appetite for slower economic growth may be more appealing as public health impacts rise and increasingly wealthy city residents look to improve their quality of life.  While the bad air days in China will continue, China’s tough new vehicle emissions rules may finally show some teeth.

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