Briefing: Transport

As China becomes richer, its clean, energy-efficient bicycles are giving way to boom in travel by cars, trains and planes, writes Maryann Bird, in the eighth of a series of guides to hot topics in a warming world.

Twenty-five years ago, Chinese city streets were crowded with people on bicycles, and there were few private cars. China still has approximately 500 million cyclists, the bicycle remaining the primary mode of transportation for many of the country’s poorest people. But bicycle production has been declining for the past decade, as the country becomes more affluent, and the majority of the bikes produced in China today are exported.

China cancelled bicycle-registration requirements in 2004, China Daily reported, “signalling the beginning of the end of its status as the world’s ‘bicycle kingdom’ as an emerging middle class increasingly forgoes the clean and energy-efficient transport in favour of the car.” In cities such as Beijing, the bicycle is no longer viewed as a “transportation tool”. Cars and bikes compete for road space, and the capital’s wide boulevards, overpasses and ring roads reflect China’s new transportation priority. Each day, it is said, about 1,000 new cars take to the streets of Beijing.

By 2000, there were five million cars on the roads and the number is expected to keep growing by 10 to 20% or more annually over the next several years. While more disruptive road building and more air pollution come with the additional motor vehicles, car ownership is an aspiration of an increasing number of Chinese people – and the government views the development of a motor industry as an important facet of the country’s economic development. (Still, as part of a weeklong energy-saving campaign in June 2006, the State Council, China’s cabinet, urged civil servants to leave their cars at home and either walk or take public transportation to their offices.)

Since 2003, China has been considered the fourth-largest producer and the third-largest consumer of automobiles, and cars have surpassed industrial dust as the greatest urban polluter (representing an estimated 80% of urban air pollution in 2005). A consumer study in China found that most people consider knowing how to drive a car — along with speaking English and using a computer – to be one of three basic, necessary skills in modern society.

As a result of the growing popularity of – and pollution by — cars in China, the government promulgated new vehicle-emissions standards in 2004, in order to force polluters off the road. The new standards, equivalent to the so-called Euro II regulations, require a 30.4% cut in carbon monoxide and a 55.8% reduction in hydrocarbon and nitric oxide emissions in China. Low-quality petrol, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), contributes to vehicular air pollution in China. It contains three to eight times more sulphur than does gasoline used in Europe and the United States.

According to SEPA, which issued five new national emissions standards for a range of vehicle types in 2005, “exhaust gas and noise emitted by vehicles have brought extensive concern from society”. It added that the “automobile manufacturing technology level in China is not good enough” at present, and that “low, even zero, emission vehicles will be the future development direction of China’s auto industry.” Even-higher emissions standards – equivalent to Euro III regulations – are expected to be adopted nationwide in 2008, with tougher regulations to be considered further in the future.

Along with road traffic, China’s railways also have been booming. The last stretch of the world’s highest railway, the nearly 2,000-km-long Qinghai-Tibet line, linking China’s Qinghai province with the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, opened on 1 July, 2006. President Hu Jintao declared it “not only a magnificent feat in China’s history of railway construction, but a great miracle of the world’s railroad history”. The Chinese consider the line an engineering marvel in having overcome the perennial ice and slush along the route, which many felt was too fragile to support tracks and trains. Projections indicate the railway will help double tourism revenues by 2010 and cut transport costs for goods by 75% in Tibet. Environmentalists remain concerned about the frail ecosystem on the Tibetan Plateau, which is home to numerous unique animal species, and have called for conservation measures.

Generally, rail mileage and traffic have increased rapidly, though not as fast as economic development currently demands. The rail industry, market researchers say, is an important part of China’s comprehensive transportation system. Its prospects are considered bright and likely to attract considerable financial investment in the years ahead.

The country has nearly 75,000 rail-kilometres (and more than 5,600 stations), according to 2004 statistics, and there were over 1.2 billion passenger-journeys on the lines. China’s Ministry of Railways said in July 2006 that the country’s trains had made 620 million passenger journeys in the first half of the year – up over 8% from the same period in 2005 — and carried 1.39 billion tons of goods, including greater amounts of economically critical coal and petroleum, as well as chemical fertilisers and pesticides – an annual increase of more than 6%. The country’s lines handle a quarter of global rail traffic on just 6% of the world’s tracks.

Chinese citizens are increasingly taking to the skies, too, travelling for business or pleasure, both within China and abroad. “For the first time in history,” The New York Times reported in May 2006, “large numbers of Chinese are leaving their country as tourists … In 1995, only 4.5 million Chinese travelled overseas. By 2005, that figure had increased to 31 million, and if expectations for future growth are met or approached, even that gargantuan growth will be quickly dwarfed. Chinese and international travel industry experts forecast that at least 50 million Chinese tourists will travel overseas by 2010, and 100 million by 2020.”

Coupled with travel by the Chinese, of course, is travel to (and around) the county by visitors from abroad. The 2008 Olympic Games, to be hosted by Beijing, are expected to bring an additional 2.6 million Chinese to the capital during, before and after the games, plus an estimated 500,000 overseas tourists and spectators, according to the Beijing Tourism Administration. Citing figures from the National Bureau of Statistics and the China National Tourism Administration, the Xinhua news agency reported in 2005 that the number of inbound foreign tourists to the Chinese mainland in 2004 had reached nearly 110 million. They came, mainly, from 16 countries and brought around $25 billion into China’s foreign exchange coffers. And – like air travel all over the world — the planes they flew in on contributed to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry’s voice, air transport is responsible for 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while supporting 8% of global economic activity. Over the last 30 years, the organisation says, aircraft emissions are down by 70%, due to fuel efficiency, new technology and direct routings. IATA and China reached agreement in early 2006 on a new route for international traffic – north of the Himalayas — which is designed to reduce flight times between China and Europe by an average of 30 minutes.

China has a shortage of international air routes, says IATA, because only 30% of the country’s airspace is available for civilian aviation and flight-planning policy is restrictive. Air-traffic delays have resulted in the “golden triangle” bounded by Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

IATA contends that the new route, known as IATA-1 (officially, Y-1), will have a “significant impact” on the environment, resulting in the annual reduction of 2,860 hours of flight time, 27,000 tonnes of fuel consumption, 84,800 tonnes of carbon-dioxide emission and 240,000 kilograms of nitrogen oxides emissions. It also will mean US $30 million in savings on airline fuel bills “at a time where the airline industry is bleeding red ink from the record high price of oil,” said IATA’s director general, Giovanni Bisignani, in April.

As airline fuel costs rise, domestic airlines too have initiated new fuel-saving measures. (Fuel costs represent 25 to 28% of the general operational costs of an airline in China, according to China Daily.) China Southern, which operates the most extensive air network in the country, for example, has applied to the authorities for more direct — and higher — flight routes designed to save fuel.

Along with such measures, however, China also plans to build 48 new airports over the next five years, bringing the national total to 190. The country’s largest international hubs – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – are already being expanded, and China has promised to buy hundreds of new planes by 2010. With the new ground facilities, reports the British newspaper the Guardian, “the country’s 1.3 billion people will be served by fewer than 200 airports, compared with more than 10,000 in the US, which has a  quarter of the population.”

Environmentalists are worried by the expected boom in air traffic over the next several years, fearing increased depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer (as well unsafe skies). Campaigners have targeted the world’s air travel as a serious contributor to global warming through greenhouse gas emissions — despite carbon-trading schemes such as Europe’s which are designed to reduce those emissions. At higher altitudes, contrails – the vapour trails, or artificial cirrus clouds, formed by condensation from aircraft engines or wing-tip vortices – also have an overall warming effect due to changes in radiation balance known as radiative forcing.

Despite the growth in cars, trains and planes, will China say goodbye to its non-polluting two-wheelers? Not according to a spokesman for the Beijing Traffic Administration Bureau, who told the China Social News in 2004: “The improvement in the state economy, the traffic situation and city management does not mean that Chinese are saying a final and complete farewell to the bicycle. Some people will still choose this non-polluting, small and green transport tool.”

And, according to the Worldwatch Institute, “one of the brightest signs on the bicycle landscape is the growth in output of electric bicycles, which have electric motors to make pedalling easier.” Their rapid rise is fuelled by Chinese sales: roughly one of every six bicycles bought in China in 2005 was an electric model – and China accounted for 95% of the 10.5 million electric-bike sales in that year.