"China, India, can those countries do it better?" asks transportation expert Daniel Sperling of University of California, Davis. "Do they have to follow the model of the U.S. and Europe?"
In 2010, the world holds some 1.2 billion cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles, including roughly 200 million in China. But with China potentially heading towards a billion vehicles alone in the next few decades the question is: can China build the clean car of the future or will it remain stuck in the muck and mire of the past?
"The industry and the market are going to smaller, cheaper vehicles, not just China and India, but elsewhere as well," Sperling notes, and tax cuts on cars with less than 1.6 liter engines helped push sales of such vehicles to 70 percent of the Chinese market this year. But, even with cars moved by such fuel efficient engines, "if you think we have problems now with oil security and climate change, it's only going to get a lot worse unless we do something about the increasing number of vehicles."
All of oil
Since the dawn of the Oil Age more than a century ago, humanity has produced (and burned for the most part) roughly 1 trillion barrels of oil. As it stands, half the oil used worldwide—86 million barrels per day—is burned in motor vehicles. "To the extent there's an oil problem, it's really a transportation problem," Sperling says, because most of the oil is used to transport people or goods.
And much of that transportation problem can be traced to China, where at least 2,000 new cars hit the streets of the capital city Beijing every day. "China's increase in oil demand [between 2000 and 2007] was equal to all of Saudi Arabia's production," notes Mikkal Herberg, an expert on energy and Asia at the University of California, San Diego, and two-thirds of the country's imported oil came from the Persian Gulf region. China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the government agency that sets Chinese energy and industrial policy, says the country relies on imported oil for 55 percent of its supplies, or more than 4.2 million barrels per day out of a more than 8 million barrels per day habit.
In Shenyang and Beijing, gas costs roughly 6.72 renminbi per liter ($3.85 per gallon) this autumn. But that price is changing. As a result of rising global oil prices and ongoing billions of renminbi losses at the quasi-governmental Chinese oil companies, the NDRC raised fuel prices on December 21, adding roughly 0.23 renminbi to the retail price per liter in a bid to spur conservation.
That conservation is needed to preserve China's energy independence, according to NDRC vice chairman Zhang Guobao. Outside of the Middle East, much of the world's production of oil has peaked. "Eighty percent of the world's known, proven, easily produced reserves is where access is completely unavailable or very constrained and limited," Herberg notes.
But there's still plenty of oil out there, as much as 4.5 trillion barrels if "unconventional" oil—oil from tar sands, heavy oil deposits or oil shale—is included. And there's even more if we start converting other fossil fuels into liquid fuel. China already has one such coal-to-liquid fuel plant and may build more. "If we're worried about greenhouse gases, this is exactly the wrong way to go. This is recarbonizing our energy system," Sperling says. "We need to meet people's [transportation] needs in a way that doesn't destroy the Earth."