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Curbing number of cars an obvious and urgent but sadly unpopular choice

GIVEN China’s importance to major carmakers and Chinese dependence on cars, any proposal to discourage car use, if broached at all, must be tactfully watered down so as not to incur bad feelings.

In recent years in the so-called exemplary first-tiered cities, cars have become so popular that they are evolving from aspirational symbols of the good life to a daily necessity.

I have the courage to raise this sensitive topic, since I am largely emboldened by the recent exchanges over the innocuousness of car exhausts, as some experts allege.

Significantly, this latest attempt at whitewashing cars came at a time of wholesale environmental degradation, particularly damning in the form of pervasive smog. There is a crying need for prompt, and collective action in addressing the issue.

One of the first shots in the auto emissions-smog debate was fired by an otherwise respectable TV host, Cui Yongyuan, who dismissed car emissions as no more polluting than “farts.” Then came Zhang Renjian, a researcher in Beijing, who downplayed car exhaust in a paper claiming that they contribute to less than 4 percent of the smog in Beijing.

Gross downplaying

Naturally Zhang got some kudos by taking up the defense of something so near and dear to the hearts of many officials and residents. In response, one evening paper in Shanghai suggested with insouciance that motorists can now sit back behind the wheel with a sigh of relief.

Fortunately there are still experts who have not given up their dedication to science and sense of social responsibility.

Following Zhang’s allegations, Professor Zhuang Guoshun, an expert in atmospheric sciences from Fudan University, made an emergency phone call to the Wenhui Daily (January 2).

He accused Zhang of grossly underestimating the contribution of car exhaust to formation of PM2.5 particles.

“When I returned to Beijing from the US over 10 years ago, I had tried to draw attention to the problem of car exhaust, [in vain]. Given the gravity of the haze today, we can no longer afford to be distracted from haze management,” Zhuang said.

Statistics from the Beijing Environmental Bureau showed that vehicle exhaust contributes to around 23 percent of the haze in Beijing (January 3, Wenhui Daily). The figure was determined after weighing several calculations.

Action, now

As there is no short-term possibility of drastically cutting the use of coal, the dominant fuel in north China and elsewhere, the only viable option in smog management is to curtail the use of cars.

However, we need not rely on expert opinion for incriminating evidence about auto exhaust and its impact. We feel it every day in our eyes, nostrils and ears.

If the public cease to consider private or officials cars as status symbols, then it would be soon realized that cars are no longer a rational choice for mobility in big cities.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Beijing’s average car travel speed is only 7.5 miles per hour (12.1 km/h), half as fast as in New York City. This means someone running just under an eight-minute mile could get where they’re going faster than a car in Beijing.

Worse, the stop-and-start traffic means alternating between braking and accelerating, which requires more gas consumption, and thus, more toxic fumes. The report said that Los Angeles incurred more than US$3 billion in pollution-related mortality costs in 2010.

Do we have the figures in China, where the exploding number of cars demands more resources be diverted and devoted to the automobile in the form of roads, elevated and underground highways, parking and other facilities?

Clearly, the success of our efforts to solve the smog problem calls for individual efforts, but it also hinges on the conscience and integrity of our officials and experts.

 

The name of this weekly column comes from the saying that one man’s meat is another’s poison.

 


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