China’s Electric Car Drive: Imposing, But Not sufficient

Rapid motorization in China has made it the world’s main auto market, and government support for plug-in vehicles has made the nation a aim for the electric vehicle ambitions on show at this week’s Shanghai auto show.

But China’s imposing efforts on electric cars do not of necessity put the nation on the road to an environmentally sustainable transportation system

As more people in China swap their bikes, scooters, public transportation and walking for passenger cars, the World Bank is pacing back to plot its strategy for helping China get better its transportation system.

The World Bank has lent $46 billion internationally in the transport sector since 2000, counting $9.4 billion in the 2010 fiscal year, mostly to build roads. Recognizing transport as vital for financial growth and trade, the World Bank seeks to help countries develop safe transport armed forces that produce minimal carbon emissions, and are easy to get to to the poor.

When it comes to electric vehicles, “A lot of people talk about China leading and running away with it,” said Oliver Hazimeh, director of the management consulting firm PRTM, which has just completed the study for the World Bank on China’s New Energy Vehicle (NEV) Program. The report hails China’s pursuit of “the most determined electrification program in the world.” But at this early stage, said Hazimeh, long-term leadership and a truthfully sustainable transportation system are far from certain.

In a statement about today’s report, Ede Ijjasz, sustainable growth manager for the World Bank in China and Mongolia, called China’s plan to invest $15 billion in vehicle electrification “extraordinary and second to not any.

Yet according to Shomik Mehndiratta, who commissioned and supervised the report last year as senior transport expert in the World Bank’s sustainable development unit for China and Mongolia, Chinese mayors have been “doing what U.S. mayors did from the 1960s.” They are usually “trying to house” growing numbers of vehicles by structure infrastructure and roads. “That cannot be the only reply to motorization.” It’s also important to run the shift, he said, and treat electric vehicles as only one piece of a system that incorporates car-free modes of transportation.

Mehndiratta said his team’s overriding goal is to help China and Chinese cities get better their transport, often centering on walking, cycling, and public transport. “More and more our role is how to deal with climate change,” he said.

When it comes to “green transport,” Chinese leaders “think almost wholly about going toward EVs,” said Mehndiratta. The extensive notion that “technology is the answer to all” is like the American mindset 50 years ago. He warned next to focusing too much on electric vehicles in China today as “a panacea.”

That is something electric vehicles do not offer. Urban overcrowding, slump, incompetent land use, and other problems associate to the large number of private vehicles, regardless of whether they plug in or gas up. Speaking to these issues will require “a more radical reinvention of urban personal mobility systems,” according to today’s study.

Even some environmental reimbursement is not a sure thing. According to the World Bank study, “The biggest challenge faced by China is that the current Chinese electrical energy grid produces comparatively high GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.” And the “long residual lifetime” of existing coal plants means the country’s electricity generation will likely remain greenhouse-gas-intensive “for a significant period of time.”
As a result, the study authors say “a new framework for maximizing GHG benefits” must be developed in order for China to realize the full emission benefits possible with electric vehicles.

The report recognizes several areas where the World Bank could work with China’s central and local governments to support deployment of “new energy” vehicles, and make the most of their environmental benefits. For example, the World Bank’s knowledge with large-scale infrastructure projects could be put toward development of a carbon emission price and monitoring system, as well as standards for vehicle charging equipment. World Bank loans could help finance infrastructure and a “comprehensive electric vehicle-ecosystem” pilot project that would include investment in battery “swap” stations, batteries, and development of software and hardware for managing loads on the grid caused by an influx of plug-in cars.

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