POLLUTION STUDIES CAST DOUBT
ON CHINA’S Electric car policies
ARTICLE FROM THE FINANCIAL TIMES
The environmental case for electric vehicles
in China has been complicated by research
questioning whether the cars could
produce more pollution than those with internal
combustion engines. With experts
suggesting the plan may be more about industrial
advantage than green impact
The issue is causing scrutiny over China’s
push to become the world’s EV champion
by 2025. The government has justified devoting
massive resources to encouraging
domestic EV production — including billions
of dollars in subsidies and production
quotas — based on the proposition they are
greener than petrol-engine cars.
But the environmental benefits were unclear,
experts said. While China has been
on a green energy push for years, coal still
accounts for an overwhelming proportion of
electricity production, meaning that charging
electric batteries also burn carbon often
at a higher per-km rate than petrol engines.
While the adoption of EVs would lower the
growth of China’s oil consumption, it might
be less effective than expected in reducing
China’s air pollution.
“Switching to EVs doesn’t inherently eliminate
the use of fossil fuels, since the electricity
that powers EVs could come from fossil
fuels, which in China means coal,” said
Scott Kennedy of the Washington DC-based
Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“EVs may just be moving air pollution
from one part of the country to another.”
Researchers from Harvard University and
Tsinghua University in Beijing said questions
of how, when and where EVs were
charged were key to understanding whether
they polluted less than combustion engine
vehicles. The study, published in the journal
of Nature Energy, recommended that owners
only charge at night, using regular electricity
lines instead of fast charging systems.
“If people were incentivised to wait until
evening and charge their vehicles in the
slow-charge mode, which takes hours, the
power load could take advantage of wind
energy available during off-peak hours,”
said Chris Nielsen of Harvard, one of the authors
of the study. But quickly charging vehicles
in the higher-energy “fast mode” could
be more polluting, the study found.
Another paper published last November
by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of
the University of Michigan’s Transportation
Research Institute found that fuel-efficient
combustion-powered cars — with better fuel
economy than 40 miles per gallon (7 litres
per 100km) — were more environmentally
friendly than EVs, given the high proportion
of coal in China’s energy mix.
That result takes into account just the
emissions from driving the vehicles. Adding
the extra environmental costs of producing
electric vehicles gives petrol-engine cars
even more of an advantage.
Tsinghua University scientists found that
the production of new-energy vehicles —
a category in China that includes electric,
plug-in petrol-electric hybrid and fuel-cell
powered vehicles — creates 50 per cent
more greenhouse gas emissions than producing
internal combustion engine cars.
They published their findings in the journal
Applied Energy in May.
Meanwhile, a paper presented by Chinese
oil company CNPC last November
raised further questions. Its researchers
found that, while gasoline cars emitted more
carbon dioxide than battery-powered cars,
the latter emitted more than twice as many
PM2.5 particles, the toxic smog that plagues
Chinese cities, mainly from wear on brake
discs and tyres as well as road dust thrown
up by the usually heavier EVs.
Supporters argued that as Chinese electricity
gets greener, so would the case for
EVs. In 2015, 72 per cent of the country’s
power generation was coal-fired, but by
2040 that figure should fall to less than 50
per cent, according to the US Energy Information
“The future energy mix, which will certainly
get greener over time, is at least as
relevant to whether it makes environmental
sense to start shifting to EVs now, since it
will take years,” said Mr Nielsen, who added
that it was a mistake to look only at national
averages in China as there were many regions
where renewable energy made up a
greater source of electricity generation.
However, he and other researchers
agreed the main motivation for the Chinese
government in promoting EVs might not ultimately
be environmental, despite the widespread
use of environmental regulations to
promote EV production.
EVs will help China limit the growth of
oil imports, helping Beijing overcome what
many reckon to be a strategic vulnerability.
Electric vehicles are also an important plank
of Chinese industrial policy: one of 10 hightech
industries in which China plans to be
internationally dominant by 2025, according
to the Made In China 2025 industrial policy.
Government measures designed to encourage
EV production include spending
an estimated $60bn in subsidies between
2015 and 2020 and requiring carmakers to
build huge volumes of EVs — between 2.4m
and 2.7m passenger EVs per year by 2020,
according to Bernstein — more than quadruple
the number sold in 2017.
The switch to EVs has been widely seen
as beneficial to China’s auto industry, which
is weaker than its international competitors
at making high-quality internal-combustion
engines, but is more competitive in battery
production. “This is more about the auto industry
than about environment or import mitigation,”
said Yao Li of Sia Energy.
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