Chinese fuel efficiency

Nov 20, 2003 01:00 AM

In the very long term, what really matters is the biological and physical basis of human life. Long after the headlines are forgotten, the human species will still have to deal with the consequences of its abuse of nature. Some of these consequences are already plain -- a depleted ozone layer, polluted rivers and lakes, deforestation, smog and global warming.
The single biggest cause of environmental degradation is the burning of fossil fuels. The internal combustion engine has done humanity much good, but it has also wreaked havoc on nature. Mainstream scientists are agreed that if something is not done soon to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the earth's atmosphere will be 1 to 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer by the year 2100. That may not seem much, until one reflects that an average of only 2 to 5 degrees separates the clement present from the depths of the last Ice Age about 20,000 years ago.

If earth could have been so uncomfortable 10,000 years ago because it was a mere 3 degrees cooler on average than now, imagine how uncomfortable it can get if it is 3 degrees warmer in just 100 years. Polar ice caps will melt; the mean sea level will rise between 15 cm and 95 cm; much of low-lying countries like Bangladesh will be submerged; there will be droughts in some arid and semi-arid areas, and floods in many temperate and humid zones; and varieties of eco-systems the world over will change dramatically, more often than not, for the worse.
A report detailed some good news that may well help the world avoid these horrid developments. “The Chinese government is preparing to impose minimum fuel economy standards on new cars... and the rules will be significantly more stringent than those in the United States, according to Chinese experts involved in drafting them,” the report said. Though Beijing does not seem to be motivated primarily by global warming, its decision will have far-reaching implications for the global environment.

If Chinese, and later Indians, consume as much energy per capita as spendthrift Americans do today, the world (including 2 bn or so Chinese and Indians) will suffocate. With rapid industrialisation, and a growing middle class, China's contribution to global warming is already rising faster than any other country in the world, and its total carbon-emissions will probably exceed those of the current world champion, the US, in a few decades.
As it is, to satisfy its burgeoning needs, China has shifted from being a net oil exporter 10 years ago, to a net importer now, with at least a third of its oil consumption coming from overseas, mainly from the Middle East. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2030 China will import as much oil as the US does today. It is chiefly to restrain the rapid growth of its dependence on imported oil that the Chinese government has taken this dramatic decision to raise fuel efficiency standards.

Two things about that decision stand out, and are worthy of emulation. One, the new Chinese standard will be as stringent on heavy vehicles as on light ones. As a result, manufacturers will have an incentive to build fuel-efficient versions of trucks and SUVs.
Two, unlike current US standards, which are fleet averages -- meaning a manufacturer can sell some high-consumption vehicles if it has lower-consumption ones in its line-up -- the Chinese are establishing minimum standards for each type of vehicle. In other words, every Chinese vehicle produced after 2005 will have to be above average. These are not mean steps for a developing country, and China deserves praise.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings
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