China Crowns Itself Queen of Electric Cars

By 2015 the Chinese government plans to be producing at least a million electric vehicles per year.  This is a move that could transform China, hardly a newcomer on the electric car scene, into the undisputed leader of green vehicle technology. Hopefully a flood of efficient electric vehicles will help clear the smog in China’s traffic jammed cities and reduce the country’s hefty carbon footprint. However the newly-announced goal could also have implications for the auto market in other countries, as worldwide demand for clean vehicles swells and China becomes a major exporter of cars to the US and other markets.

China’s electric car announcement seems almost designed to put the United States to shame. In his State of the Union address President Obama supported a goal of getting a cumulative total of one million plug-in electric hybrids on the road by 2015. However if China’s 2015 target sounds ambitious, the country’s long-term goal is even more so. By 2020 China plans to be manufacturing 100 million electric cars, buses, and other vehicles every year. Over the next decade the Chinese government will put over 100 billion yuan into electric vehicle programs. China isn’t messing around when it comes to setting itself up to dominate the electric vehicle market, and other countries would do well to take note.

China’s commitment to electric cars spells good news for the global climate and for air quality in the country itself—and paired with other policies could make significant reductions in China’s carbon emissions. Electric vehicles are of course not carbon neutral, or at least not unless the electricity used to power them comes from all-renewable sources. However because they are so much more efficient, even electric cars powered by energy from coal plants have a smaller carbon footprint than cars running on internal combustion engines. Because they produce zero tailpipe emissions, electric cars can also improve local air quality in areas that get lots of traffic.

Even so the shift to electric cars will mean even more from China if the country can decarbonizes its electricity system. Though it has made important investments in renewable energy already, the vast majority of China’s electric grid is still powered by dirty coal. The fact that an increased number of cars and buses will be charging up on that grid makes it more important than ever that China switch to cleaner forms of energy like wind and solar power.

Meanwhile it’s a good time for the US and other countries to think about ramping up their own investments in electric vehicles. If China can put a million such cars on the road in four years, the US should easily be able to achieve President Obama’s electric car goals. In fact the president’s goal may turn out to be woefully un-ambitious. With China determined to dominate the electric car scene if it can, it seems half-measures are no longer enough.

Photo credit: "Waldec" on Flickr