China announced plans to end sales of all fossil fuel-powered cars. Bloomberg reported over the weekend that Xin Guobin, vice-minister of the Industry and Information Technology Ministry, is finalizing a timetable for ending production and sales of gas-powered cars while stepping up incentives for hybrid and electric cars, though no exact deadline has been announced. China has long pushed for electric cars (called ‘New Energy Vehicles’ in the country) introducing tax breaks for new buyers and planning 100,000 new charging stations in 2017 alone.
China is the largest car exporter in the world. There are 160 million cars on the road in China and the 28 million new cars it sold in 2016 accounted for almost a third of all car sales worldwide. There’s no indication when exactly the ban will drop, but similar bans of fossil fuel cars in France and the UK set a 2040 deadline. Xinhua, the news agency reporting Guobin’s announcement, sourced experts who also estimated 2040, wary of economic shockwaves reverberating from a too hasty transition. In April, the government said it hoped that by 2035 one-fifth of all vehicles sold would be electric, spurring huge growth among domestic carmakers. Undoubtedly, China’s new focus will set the tenor of the entire global conversation around electric vehicles for years to come.
Still, it’s important to remember that electric cars aren’t entirely carbon free. First, consider the charging stations. They may be electric, but if they’re powered from a coal- or fossil fuel-based grid, their environmental impact is still comparable to traditional cars. Additionally, manufacturing is in in no way a carbon-free process, and neither is transporting vehicles across the country or internationally for purchase.
The announcement of this timeline to end Chinese gas-powered vehicle production builds on similar anti-pollution commitments as China accelerates its transition away from fossil fuels. Previously, the country has announced plans to cut as many as 500,000 steel jobs and, as part of its Paris Agreement commitments, cap its CO2 emissions in 2030, peaking that year, then falling continuously thereafter. China already sets global records in wind and solar energy investments.
Key to its automobile transition will likely be its lottery system. In certain cities in China, drivers must acquires license plates via a notoriously difficult lottery system, with as few as one out of 735 requests granted in Beijing. Further, the plates are issued for local use only, meaning those driving long distances will likely still be hit with fines. Electric vehicles, however, receive waivers, exempting them from much of the process.
That being said, the electric and hybrid car energy is clearly the future of automobiles, and China is positioning itself far ahead of the US. China sold roughly 350,000 electric cars in 2015, more than double what the US sold that year. Worse, more than half of all domestic sales in the US were in California, where drivers are offered rebates and tax breaks for new purchases.
There’s no indication the US will take steps to catch up to China in EV sales, though the renewable industry is still booming despite a lack of federal support. What remains to be seen is how far behind the US will be in the decades to come as the global community outpaces its acceptance of the clean energy future.