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Guest Post: The Biggest (missed) Environmental News Story of 2013

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Beijing announcement illustrates the shortcomings of how we look at the future of the global transportation system

By Tali Trigg

On November 7th 2013, the Beijing city government announced sweeping changes to car ownership in the near future [1] that fundamentally shifted the future outlook for the city’s and perhaps the country’s transportation system. This announcement was arguably the biggest environmental news item of 2013. But, it was barely – if at all – covered by most news sources.

So what was this grand piece of news?

Well, in short, the City of Beijing introduced a law that will:

  1. cut new car registration caps by no less than 37.5% starting in 2014
  2. allow no more than 6 million cars on the roads (note: there are 5.4 million vehicles on the road in Beijing today)
  3. mandate that 40% of the new vehicles be so-called “new energy vehicles,” which includes fuel-efficient hybrids

Beijing’s announcement was a dramatic one because almost nobody has included this type of potential action in their modeling of the future Beijing transportation system (besides the Chinese government agency responsible for this law, of course).

The ramifications of this law are – in a word – massive. It means that almost all of the large international organizations and many private organizations that have been trying to get a handle on the future outlook of the world’s transportation systems could be off in their projections.

Way. Way. Way off.

And this gap exists because of two major issues associated with global transportation system: local air pollution and population growth.

Backing up for a moment, let’s first discuss what the Beijing announcement might mean for future transportation system projections using a thought experiment:

Let’s assume that car ownership rates do not exceed the limit mandated in Beijing in any Chinese city in terms of saturation of car ownership (number of cars per capita). This is perhaps reasonable, given the city’s head-start in explosive car ownership as well as the fact that Beijing is the government capital, and if anyone was going to be lenient on themselves, it would be Beijing.

Question – What is the difference between this new limit and the forecasted baseline car ownership in China in 2050?

Answer – the equivalent of the 2011 CO2 emissions of Spain, the world’s 13th largest economy.

This means that, if you extend Beijing’s mandate (and equivalent cap on car ownership per capita) across the country, you would reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 270 megatons (Mt) just in the year 2050 compared to where we thought we were headed.

This difference illustrates some of the major issues in global modeling efforts, which in turn are used to outline global policy actions.

Now let’s go back to the two major issues associated with global transportation system analysis: local air pollution and population growth in the context of this discussion.

Regarding the first – many countries are already suffering gravely from local air pollution in their cities. Now that Beijing is taking steps to close factories, limit cars, and increase energy efficiency [2], how much longer will other cities and countries tolerate air pollution?

My common-sense prediction is – not very long.

Viewing the state of the energy field through market analysis tends to obfuscate the human and physical context in which energy production and consumption operates. A better framework is to apply a common-sense filter to better predict where things are heading by taking on-the-ground conditions into account.

Now for issue #2 – population growth. Not many people in developed countries are surprised to learn that their population is expected to somewhat decrease over time to a lower, and stable level. This has happened to almost all developed economies (for now the exception is the US, due to continuing influxes of immigrants), and is a seemingly natural way for any system to sort itself out.

My common-sense prediction for the developing world is that the UN and the World Bank and most international projections are wrong in how they see the developing world, well, develop in the coming decades out until 2050. Instead, I contend that – if you take common sense into account – a much more likely scenario can be envisioned and predicted for the developing world. That prediction is this: development in the developing world is not only equal to growth, but actual development i.e., better lives.

Today, China, Nigeria, and India are already running against physical constraints that defy all projections and prognostications of the coming decades. These three countries are now suffering pollution and congestion to the point that the respective governments and peoples already realize that a sustainable future does not equal anything green and fuzzy-sounding, but rather, the continuation of their societies. [3]

The UN believes Nigeria will be the third most populous nation by 2050, [4] and most believe that India and China will have car ownership rates approaching European levels. But, those who have been to these three countries in 2013 realize that the situation is already so severe that it is highly unlikely that these ownership rates could be realized, even if the countries want and deserve future economic growth that drives most of this increase in car ownership. [5]

China has already realized this fact, halting the building of government buildings [6] and closing over 2,000 factories in 2010 in one fell swoop to attempt to improve pollution and energy intensity. [7] Congestion controls have already been implemented in its top three cities including a car auction in Shanghai, a car lottery in Beijing, and license-plate controls in Guangzhou.

In others words, China’s future is looking less bleak and ominous than forecasters believe; it will improve not because of happenstance. Rather, local physical constraints in China, India, and Nigeria will lead to constrained growth levels that are sustainable in the true meaning of the word: socially, economically, and environmentally.

Beijing’s cut in how many cars are allowed on the roads is a reflection of reality on the ground, but its implications are far-reaching. As other emerging countries develop, not just grow, they have a substantial opportunity to make sure that this development is long-lasting and viable and those attempting to divine CO2­ emission trends would do well to take these developments into account. Otherwise, the biggest (missed) environmental news of 2013 will be a valuable lesson forsaken.

About the Author

Tali Trigg is an international energy and transport analyst whose expertise is in transportation issues and technologies, with an emphasis on smart growth policies, bus rapid transit (BRT), and electric vehicles (EVs). Mr. Trigg can be found on twitter @talitrigg. He was invited to contribute this guest post by Plugged In’s Melissa C. Lott.

Photo Credit: Photo of Beijing traffic jam by Kallgan and found using Creative Commons.


[1] “Beijing to cut new car registration quota by 37.5 pct” November 7, 2013

[2] “Beijing Takes Steps to Fight Pollution as Problem Worsens” NY Times. January 30, 2013

[3] “Delhi’s Dangerous Air Pollution Problem” Wall Street Journal. November 3, 2013

[4] “Nigeria expected to have larger population than US by 2050″ The Guardian. June 13, 2013

[5] Dargay, et al “Vehicle Ownership and Income Growth: 1960-2030″ January 2007

[6] “China halts new government buildings” China Economic Review. July 24, 2013

[7] “In crackdown on energy use, China to Shut 2,000 Factories” NY Times August 9, 2010


Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sisko 11:28 am 01/13/2014

    Scientific American seems to regularily publish articles that compliment the Chinese for their proposed future actions. The Chinese will do what makes sense for the Chinese on a long term basis.

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  2. 2. MoEnergySci 11:43 am 01/13/2014

    Agree with the second sentence – this is how life goes. Of course a country’s population wants to do what is best for them in the long-run (though, often short-term priorities get in the way). Apparently the Chinese believe that reducing air pollution in China will benefit them. Otherwise, they would not be taking this type of step to reduce emissions. Beijing’s actions should be complimented as it is a positive step forward in reducing air pollution (and, in turn, the number of early deaths that result from bad air quality).

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  3. 3. sault 12:00 pm 01/13/2014


    You need to understand, and this is basically the article’s main point, but this is a HUGE turnaround in China’s environmental policy. It used to be growth at all costs, and that mentality led to some grim projections on the environmental and energy fronts. Things still look pretty bad, but if they can keep the momentum up and not get complacent, China could go from the worst polluter to a global environmental leader. The USA relinquishes its global leadership position on these issues to China at its own peril.

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  4. 4. geowiz875 12:10 pm 01/13/2014

    I fear Mr. Trigg may be falling into the trap of believing everything the Beijing government says. As a 10 year resident of China, I know the truth of the old Chinese proverb “The emperor is in heaven and Beijing is far away.” China, despite ideas of a monolithic Communist dictatorship, is a very undergoverned country. So your factory is closed in Shanghai – move it to the country: can’t buy a car in Beijing – bus a 100 km. into the countryside and drive back to Beijing.

    Oh, I’m optimistic in the long run. The young 20 year olds I taught always listed pollution near the top of their ‘problem’ lists. But it will take a generation or so to solve their problems; just like the west.

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  5. 5. Sisko 12:20 pm 01/13/2014

    I have been doing large amounts of business in China for over a decade and think I have a reasonable understanding of the situation.

    The Chinese government reacts to changes in public opinion when they believe that public opinion may negatively impact the implementation of governmental policies. The pollution in China’s capitol is so bad that is can no longer be ignored and is angering the populace. The government is showing its population that it notices and responds.

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  6. 6. MoEnergySci 12:44 pm 01/13/2014

    Sault’s point also an interesting one in the context of the USA’s responses in climate change discussions, where they have historically refuced to sign agreements because China will not. Now China might be taking the first step in a strong stance against air pollution from transportation. (Of course, I should say that the USA has increased their fuel economy standards recently)

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  7. 7. PTripp 1:55 pm 01/13/2014

    Remember the Beijing Olympics? For a week or two before they shut down all the factories and severely limited driving to clear the air enough to even hold the games.

    Before you run off with the same ‘common sense’ praise for China, remember this is just one city. The author and many others would like to see China roll out the same per capita cap on cars across China, but there’s no indication that they will. They would have done so already if it was a new policy. Instead they are trying it in Beijing, and it will take years to see it’s effects. China either does things very quickly, or slowly. This is on the slow track.

    Also before you lavish praise on them, don’t forget that China is still building coal fired power plants at an incredible rate and has just increased their goals for coal production too. Their plants are much dirtier than our oldest plants here in the US.

    Of course I give them credit for a step in the right direction, but it’s way too early to give them praise.

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  8. 8. Uncle.Al 3:12 pm 01/13/2014

    1) Ban oil, coal, and gas well flaring.
    2) Ban street lighting.
    3) Ban auto headlights on in daylight.
    4) Ban pneumatic tires (PV = 101.325 J/liter-atm).
    5) Ban through-air broadcasting.
    6) Ban all buildings’ heating and cooling, and refrigeration and cooking.
    7) Ban electric lines and cords.
    8) Ban server farms.
    9) Ban dissent.

    Conservation – somebody else in the tenebrous future deserves to consume it; and not them, either.

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  9. 9. jerryd 3:33 pm 01/13/2014

    China always makes such announcements and little happens. New coal powerplants are increasing in number and size 4x’s faster than RE, nukes combined.

    And facts are FF’s in 20-30 yrs will be too expensive to burn making it not a choice for everyone.

    But Chinese corruption will screw it all up causing China’s civil war before that.

    Link to this
  10. 10. RosieConnelly 7:09 pm 01/13/2014

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  11. 11. Heteromeles 7:23 pm 01/13/2014

    The one real issue I see is whether Chinese efforts can be sustained.

    Let’s for a second, grant that China will work hard to limit car ownership per this article. Well and good. What happens in 20 years?

    I’m asking that because, back in the 1990s, the US did a vaguely credible effort of trying to conserve species. Most of that effort has been systematically undercut for the last decade, and we’re now fighting the same damn conservation battles with a new generation of know-nothings who are trying to reintroduce 1920s-era science and management practices (everything from wolf hunting to old-style “scientific forestry”) in places where it was eliminated 10 or 20 years ago.

    This is a problem: environmental battles aren’t necessarily over once they’ve been won. The people who lost can always inspire an new generation to be as greedy and short-sighted as they were.

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