China’s Choices on Autos to Shape Global Health

A recent trip to China has persuaded me that the choices the Chinese people and government make about consumption, health and economic development will shape global patterns of chronic disease and injuries for the rest of this century. Last week, I wrote about Coca Cola and PepsiCo’s plans to encourage increased sugary beverage consumption in the world’s largest market—and the likely implications for China’s growing obesity and diabetes epidemics. In this post I consider the future of the Chinese automobile industry and the implications for health. China’s choices in this and other sectors will affect not only the well-being of the Chinese people but also establish a model that other emerging economics like Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa may follow.

World’s Largest Auto Market

Traffic jam in Shanghai

China is now the world’s largest auto market. According to a recent report by the J.D Power Associates, an automotive information resource, new-vehicle shoppers in China have the world’s widest range of choices, with 94 brands and 476 models from which to choose. That compares with fewer than 40 brands and nearly 100 fewer models available in the U.S. market, the second-largest automotive market in the world in 2011. LMC Automotive forecasts a nine percent growth in passenger-vehicle sales in 2012, a much lower rate than in previous years when China’s new-vehicle sales surged at double-digit rates. China’s passenger-vehicle market is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 12.4 percent during the next four years and will reach an estimated 20.9 million units annually by 2015.

Despite the recent slowdown in auto sales, the rapid growth in automobiles has created some serious problems, reports China’s Xinhua News Agency, including traffic grid-lock, pollution and energy shortages. “China’s auto industry is caught in a dilemma in the wake of energy supply strains, deteriorating environment and traffic woes,” Cui Jingshu, an auto dealer in Changchun, capital city of the northeastern Jilin Province, told Xinhua. Jiang Jun, a researcher with Jilin Academy of Social Sciences, noted that given that each car uses about a ton of oil a year, “the current 200 million tons of annual gasoline and diesel oil supply can only support a maximum of 200 million vehicles.” China currently registers 219 million motor vehicles, of which about 100 million are automobiles.

Motor vehicle exhaust is now a major source of air pollution in the country, adding to the nation’s already serious coal-related pollution. “About one third of the 100 major cities across the country failed to meet air quality standards during recent years, for which vehicle emissions should be blamed,” Jiang said. China has vowed to reduce both energy consumption and carbon emissions per unit of economic output by 18 percent over the next five years, as part of its wider plan to cut the carbon use per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.

Many cities, including Beijing, recently adopted measures to reduce auto use including higher parking charges in downtown areas and a car-quota system, which allows only 240,000 new cars to be registered in the city this year, compared with the 800,000 units that took to the streets in 2010.

One influence that helped persuade China to take action on pollution was the 2008 Olympics and the hope that the millions of visitors might see some blue sky through Beijing’s notorious smog. Another influence may have been the social media. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Ma Jun, a former journalist, author, and founder of the  Beijing nonprofit Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, said that one reason air pollution has recently become such a pressing public issue is because of the concurrent rise of social-media platforms in China — especially the microblogging sites Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo. Ma Jun went on to explain:

Last year, Beijing suffered from several long spells of hazy days — people began to feel that their quality-of-life and work productivity were impacted, and they worried about the health of their children. Also, so many flights got canceled because of the smog… Even with an ambitious plan, Beijing will probably not be able to meet air-quality standards for 18 or 20 years.

Role of US Auto Industry

China’s domestic auto industry is growing and emphasizes electric cars. But US and European automakers are also rushing to grow their share of business in the world’s largest car market. According to the Wall Street Journal, General Motors:

…plans to add 600 dealerships in China this year, about a 20 percent increase, as the auto maker looks to bolster its presence here amid growing competition and an economic-growth slowdown. Chief Executive Dan Akerson…outlined steps GM is taking to boost sales and market share in China, where it is the largest foreign auto maker. The addition of 600 dealerships would bring the company’s dealer network in China to 3,500 stores, up from 2,900 at the end of 2011. At that size, China’s dealers would begin to rival the company’s U.S. network of 4,400.

General Motors has announced that it will partner with China’s SAIC Motor Corporation on the

Photoshoot for the new GM SAIC automobile in Yangshuo, China

development of an all-new electric vehicle. The final product will be sold in China under the SAIC brand, but GM will benefit from the deal by having a new electric vehicle platform which can be used to spawn new vehicles in other global markets. Ford is also an active player in China and GM’s expansion comes as Ford sales have declined in the slowing Chinese auto market.

One consequence of the current slowdown in auto sales in China, reports the Wall Street Journal this week, is that it is leading Chinese auto makers to increase their exports.  According to Forbes, in coming years, China hopes to enter the US auto market, competing in the plug-in electric market and using battery technology from China. Forbes predicts that Chinese auto manufacturers:

…will forgo the internal combustion engine altogether. The Chinese have been putting money into research and development on electric vehicles for years. CODA, a privately held American company based in Los Angeles, makes a sedan that, like the Chevy Volt, will be priced over $40,000 and be eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. CODA also happens to make its “glider” — a vehicle without a powertrain — in China. CODA will import a sedan glider for use as electric vehicle. The battery it runs on: also imported from China. “Because we build the glider in China, technically ours will be the first Chinese manufactured car sold in the U.S.,” said CODA representative Larkin Hill.

Air pollution, Beijing

Implications for Health

The United States, birthplace of the corporate-led autocentric mode of development, has no moral authority to tell China or any other country not to make cars more available to its consumers. But this country’s experience with automobile-related air pollution, climate change, clogged highways, inactivity-related obesity and other health problems and auto-distorted urban development has much to say about the perils of letting the automobile industry dictate economic development. Can the US public health community find respectful ways to share these lessons with colleagues and governments in emerging nations? Our success could alter the rising global tide of deaths, illness and injury related to the world’s growing number of motor vehicles.


Image Credits:

1. Sergio Rozas via Flickr

2. Nicholas Freudenberg

3. Neil Banas via Flickr.