Overview of China's vehicle emission control program

In booming China, vehicle ownership of all kinds is soaring. Since 2000, the total stock of cars, trucks, and buses has more than quadrupled, from 13.5 million to over 60 million, and the number of motorcycles has tripled, from 68 million to over 200 million. China is now the world’s largest vehicle market, and as quick as this expansion has been, it is accelerating.

The benefits in personal freedom and mobility conferred by such explosive growth are remarkable, but so are the costs: dangerously worsened air quality and skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions; rising incidence of asthma, lung cancer, and other chronic and acute health problems; decreasing energy security through increasing reliance on imported oil; massive gridlock and urban congestion.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) develops policies for regulating transportation-related emissions. To inform and support its work, at MEP’s request the ICCT carried out a broad assessment of China’s vehicle emissions control program and scenarios for improvement, with support from the Hewlett Foundation and the China Sustainable Energy Program (CSEP). The goal was to evaluate the potential for tightening vehicle and fuel standards, enhancing compliance monitoring, raising fuel consumption standards, as well as to assess impacts of advanced vehicle technologies and alternative fuels.

The ICCT worked closely with the Vehicle Emission Control Center (VECC), a policy research group affiliated with MEP, and researchers from Tsinghua University. These joint efforts produced detailed documentation of the substantial benefits of existing MEP regulations in 2000–2010 and the even more substantial benefits that would ensue if standards were made more stringent. The studies analyzed two scenarios for policy strengthening: an Improved Program, which involves adoption of China VI by 2015, and a Strong Program, which additionally would adopt by 2020 the U.S. SULEV standard for light-duty vehicles as well as the China VII standard for heavy-duty vehicles.

Highlights of the evaluation

The cumulative emissions reductions of policies implemented since 2000, as compared to a “no policy” scenario, amount to 44.5 million metric tons of total hydrocarbons, 238.7 million metric tons of carbon monoxide, 38 million metric tons of nitrogen oxide, and 7 million metric tons of particulate matter. Conservatively estimated, the economic value of avoided health impacts alone total 170 RMB (US$ 25 billion) in 2010, the equivalent to 0.5 percent of GDP.

Avoided incidences of health impacts, current policy package
Health impacts (000’s) 2000 2005 2010
Premature mortality 6.3 30 110
Hospital admissions 0.95 4.2 15
Chronic bronchitis 14 63 220
Acute bronchitis 75 320 1,100
Asthma attacks 96 420 1,400
Restricted activity days 7,400 33,000 110,000

But while China has achieved significant reductions in pollution, with corresponding benefits to public health, stronger policy measures will be required to control soaring vehicle emissions propelled by the projected growth trend in the vehicle market demands.

With continued commitment to further tightening vehicle and fuel standards, along with the introduction of additional policy elements that parallel international best practices, China could drive down emissions trends and the associated adverse health impacts much further, and move toward a world-class emission control program. In 2030, the premature mortality prevented with a strong emissions control program would be three times as great as under the current program in 2010. The economic value of health benefits under the Improved and Strong Programs is estimated at 2.4–2.6 trillion RMB (US$350–390 billion), equivalent to 2.3–2.6 percent of GDP.

Further improvements in fuel consumption standards would yield substantial fuel savings and avoided carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—approximately 78 billion gallons of oil and over 760,000 tons of CO2 in 2030 under the Strong Program. Also, there are considerable climate co-benefits associated with reduced PM emissions because black carbon—a highly potent climate forcer that is a subset of PM—is reduced as well.

This comprehensive review of China’s transportation air quality policies, published in Chinese and English, confirms the success of MEP’s vehicle and fuel standards and compliance programs to date. Without more stringent regulation, however, emissions and fuel consumption will rise inexorably with the growth in vehicle population. A suite of tested policies is available to China to avert or mitigate that outcome, but important barriers to progress must be addressed. Chief among them are constraints on MEP’s authority to regulate emissions-related fuel quality and enforce vehicle and fuel standards, industry opposition to more stringent regulation, and limited financial and staff resources.