What does Beijing’s battle against air pollution mean for automakers?

Beijing may be big but its vehicle parc is severely restricted. Automotive World takes a closer look at how the city's mobility ecosystem is evolving.

September 2019 , Featured:
Automotive World
September 2019 - China's battle with air pollution has been well documented over the years, so much so that it's become an established stereotype. Acid rain, photochemical smog, and black smoke pouring out of industrial stacks—such images are kept out of the tourist brochures, but they have become firmly associated with the country's urban centres over the years.

When it comes to population numbers, it doesn't get much more crowded than Beijing. The capital city has China's largest urban population after Shanghai. It's also the most populous capital city in the world and home to more Fortune Global 500 companies than anywhere else. "There are 15.6 million people of working age in Beijing, of which 40% commute by public transportation every day," observed Nicolas Pechet, Senior Partner at Asian-focussed consultancy YCP Solidiance. Office hours tend to be more rigid than in other major urban centres, making rush hour traffic even more of a challenge. At certain times of the year, particularly around the national holidays in September, the rush hour period can last up to five hours.

The city is one of the main transportation hubs in Mainland China, with well-connected roads as well as air and rail transportation routes. "China's largest airport is in Beijing; it has the most significant rail hub in the country, and many national highways radiate from Beijing," added Pechet. In total, the city boasts about 31,000 buses, 68,000 taxis, and 3.1 million private vehicles. Its metro rail network measures 636.8 kilometres (395.7 miles).

With so many people and so many vehicles, it is of little wonder that transport emissions have come under the spotlight. Transportation sources are responsible for 45% of the PM 2.5 emissions in Beijing, followed by various dust particle sources such as construction projects, which generate 16% of PM 2.5 emissions. About 12% of the PM 2.5 emission are generated from various industrial facilities. Diesel vehicles are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution in the city. According to Pechet, diesel vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks, light commercial vehicles and buses, are responsible for 68.3% of the NOx and 99% of the PM, 11.9% of CO2 and 22.9% of HC emissions. Gasoline cars and taxis, meanwhile, are responsible for 85% of CO2, 73.5% of HC, 26.8% of NOx, and less than 1% of PM emissions.

Restricting vehicle ownership and use 

The Beijing government is well aware of the smoggy picture its city is presenting to the world, and it has been tackling transport emissions from a number of different angles. One way to reduce transport emissions is to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. This is the thinking behind the city's license plate lottery, which came into effect in January 2011. Before any resident can drive a car, they must obtain a license plate through a random draw. The number of license plates issued has declined over the years. In the first bimonthly draw of 2018, more than 12 million applicants competed for a mere 6,460 plates. Last year the city limited the number of new plates issued to 100,000 - a 33% cut compared to the 150,000 given out the year before. Of this total, most are reserved for new energy vehicles (NEVs). Just 40,000 were issued to conventional cars.

Even once a resident obtains a license plate, they cannot always drive. Occasionally, the city implements an 'odd-even' license plate policy, under which cars with an even number at the end of their plate can use the road on certain days and cars with an odd number are allowed on other days. This policy is generally applied when the air pollution levels are at their highest. A Yuan 200 (US$30) penalty is imposed on those that break the rules, along with three penalty points on their driving licence. If anyone accumulates 12 points over one year, they lose their licence.

The introduction of a congestion charge could also put off drivers from coming into Beijing with their cars. The government has been kicking around the proposal for years but nothing conclusive has yet emerged. In theory, it would take a similar form to those in operation in London and Stockholm.

Emissions standards

The city is also restricting vehicle usage through its Low-Emission Zone. Implemented in September 2017, the zone prevents entry into the city of any heavy-duty commercial vehicles that do not meet the National IV Standards. By restricting entry of the worst polluting trucks, the zone is expected to save an estimated 43 lives each year.

China as a whole is cracking down on vehicle emissions regulations and launching the new China 6 standard. "Implementing increasingly stringent standards for vehicles plying on the roads may have a significant impact in the long term," suggested Pechet. Notably, the Beijing government has decided to implement the China 6b policy ahead of schedule, skipping the China 6a standard and enforcing China 6b directly from the China 5 emission standard. "The China 6b standard is the most strict standard for transportation emissions," he added. "It is much more stringent than Euro 6."

The second table below shows the difference between China 6b and Euro 6. As of July 2019, 102 automakers with 2,293 light-duty car models have been certified for China 6b. In the heavy-duty vehicle segment, 74 automakers with 1,369 models have been certified. Pechet estimates that there are around 4,000 light-duty car models and around 3,500 heavy-duty vehicle models in China as of 2018, meaning that 45-50% of the light-duty car models and 60% of the heavy-duty models still do not meet the China 6b standard at this point. "The Beijing government plans to implement the China 6b standard for all types of vehicles starting in January 2020. We expect that this shift will bring many changes in the automobile industry," he predicted.

All-electric taxi fleet 

Electric vehicles (EVs) will play a big part in reducing Beijing's transport emissions, and the government is offering incentives for fleets and private buyers. The taxi segment in particular could see a big boost in EV uptake thanks to a new subsidy programme. Following in the footsteps of Shenzhen, Beijing is now offering taxi operators up to US$10,727 if they trade in their internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle for a battery electric vehicle (BEV). Vehicles must be scrapped by taxi operators between 2018 and 2020 to qualify for the initiative. 

"The subsidy comes on the back of a long-touted pledge by the local government to replace its entire taxi fleet with BEVs, though the initial programme did not specify if the government would shoulder the cost of replacing the 67,000-strong taxi fleet," observed Anna-Marie Baisden, Head of Autos Research at Fitch Solutions. "With the subsidy in place, we believe local taxi operators will act quickly to replace their ageing fleets with BEVs."

However, Baisden remains cautious on the realisation of this ambitious taxi fleet replacement programme, noting that it has already seen delays. "Initially, Beijing was not eager to subsidise taxi purchases, leaving taxi operators to decide if they want to replace their vehicles with EVs. However, weak demand for passenger cars in China led the government to introduce several programmes to stimulate the uptake of cars, such as tax cuts for carmakers and leaving subsidies for EV purchases in place."

Public transport, shared mobility 

Investment in public transport is also contributing to the city's war on emissions and road congestion, making it easier and more convenient for travellers to get where they need to. "Beijing's overall transportation network has significantly improved compared to the heavily congested scenes of five to ten years ago," observed Wijaya Ng, Head of Business Consulting in Greater China at Ipsos Business Consulting.

Part of that is due to the addition of new metro lines, which jumped from 18 in 2015 to 22 in 2018, accounting for a 16% rise in passenger trips per year. The number of bus lines has similarly increased slightly, growing from 876 in 2015 to 888 in 2018. Public transport is also becoming smarter. Under the Beijing Municipal of Transportation's 'Intelligent Transportation plan for the 13th Five-Year Period', a series of mobile apps were launched. These apps allow users to check bus and metro schedules and routes more conveniently on their mobile phones. Transport planners are also harnessing congestion analytics and machine learning capabilities to optimise the scheduling of public transportation.

Meanwhile, shared mobility schemes are also making an impact. As Ng noted: "To encourage green commuting, car-pooling and ride-hailing services have been legitimized through a series of regulations over the past five years. Today they are readily available." An estimated 100 million trips were taken via ride-hailing schemes in Beijing in 2018 alone.

Varying degrees of success 

License plate restrictions, congestion charging, low-emission zones, EV subsidies and shared transport will all contribute to the city’s emission reduction aims, but to varying degrees. "The odd-even license plate policy is by far the most impactful policy in reducing transport emissions in Beijing," stated Pechet. "Limiting the sales of traditional cars by auctioning the license plates was not enough to tackle air pollution, but the odd-even policy reduced the number of vehicles on the road by half, which in turn significantly improved emissions levels in Beijing."

The city is also implementing measures outside of transport, such as closing coal-fired power plants in or near the city, and some of these have been very successful in reducing emissions. But as Pechet emphasised: "There is no single solution to this enormous challenge, and the multi-pronged approach implemented by the government has been effective. With the help of these measures, Beijing city has witnessed a 35% reduction in the PM 2.5 level between 2013 and 2017. Of course, more still remains to be done."

Long-term targets

Recent research published in the Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability journal concluded that the city could conceivably reach zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Using an Integrated Energy and Environment Policy Assessment Model, researchers suggested a rapid decarbonisation of transport, zero-emission space heating and negative emissions technologies could theoretically bring the city to this ambitious target. But what do others think?

In 2018, the Beijing Municipal Ecological Environment Bureau outlined a short-term threeyear plan. This ambitious blueprint set out specific environmental goals to be reached by the end of 2020. These include a 30% reduction in transport emissions compared to a 2017 base level. The plan also wants to see 400,000 NEVs on the road in Beijing. As of the end of 2018, there were 230,000, up from 170,000 in 2017. Another target calls for the optimisation of transportation structure, with 10% of goods to be moved by train instead of cars to reduce pollution. By the end of 2019, the government expects nearly 8% of products to be carried by train.

There have been no official targets for zero-emission transport, and no plan in place to achieve this, attributable to a number of likely reasons. "To start with, it is tremendously challenging, economically and logistically, to replace traditional vehicles in such a vast city," Pechet told Automotive World. "Government officials believe that conventional vehicles will remain a viable option until 2050. Secondly, the government may be concerned that if they publish a specific timeline to phase out traditional vehicles, they may adversely impact China's automotive industry in the short and medium term. The automotive industry in China is the world's largest, and it is a significant driver of the Chinese economy, so the government must very carefully work through all of the complexities involved in making this enormous transition."

This article is part of Automotive World's special report, 'How are cities tackling the zeroemissions challenge?'.

Source: Automotive World

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