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


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


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

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