Autocar’s reporters at today’s Shanghai auto show have one reason to be grateful; they’re inside. I attended the Beijing show this time last year and was rendered extremely ill by the extreme pollution that is now almost a daily occurrence in the Chinese capital. I snapped the picture above as I left the Beijing show, before collapsing onto a coach and taking straight to my hotel room.
Shanghai is not in the same perilous position as Beijing, though the situation in this mega city - which has the environmental advantage of being built on a wide river relatively close the sea - is getting worse. Earlier this year Shanghai suffered the worst air pollution it has seen for five years. Although the rise in car use in China has been exponential - and is expected to continue for two more decades, as Steve Cropley says today - it is not cars that are the biggest enviro-culprits.
More of problem is the vast amount of coal that is burnt by Chinese power stations and the pollution from commercial vehicles, construction equipment and so on. Tiny particulates - under the size of 2.5 microns - which are thought to do the most damage to the human body are to a great extent created by the combustion of coal and diesel. UK cities including London, Oxford and Manchester are also have serious PM problems - and are regularly in breach of EU air quality regulations. But the Chinese problem is on another scale altogether.
Media reports say that China is trying to cap the amount of coal that is burnt in the country.It is already said to be the largest user of coal on the planet, with around 70 percent of China’s power coming from burning coal.
Which means that a big shift to battery-powered cars, something kicked around by Chinese authorities, would make only a minimal difference to air quality when the electricity is being generated by belching coal stations.
Until now, few in car industry have stood up against the idea that electric cars are the silver bullet solution. However, as Jim Holder reports this morning from Shanghai, Maserati boss Harald Wester has gone public, calling electric cars a ‘nonsense’. While he quotes the Co2 figures involved in charging an electric cars, he also hints at the issue of pollution, suggesting gas-power is the way to go. Gas, of course, offers a combination of low-Co2 emissions and near-zero pollution.
Earlier this week Fiat Auto boss Sergio Marchionne - in his typically forthright way - revealed that Fiat would lose £6500 on every Fiat 500e it sold in the US even with government subsidies and warned regulators that electric cars were not the ‘only solution’. ‘Natural gas’ said Marchionne ‘was the cleanest alternative fuel'.
He’s right, of course. Cars powered by gas will be much cheaper than battery-powered cars, offer virtually zero local pollution and low enough Co2 to challenge all but nuclear and renewable power sources. Even better China thinks it has the largest shale gas reserves in the world, bigger even than the vast US reserves. But industry experts say it might be hard to extract, partly because ‘fracking’ needs huge amounts of water - something China doesn’t have.
But any arguments by the Green lobby about the environmental impact of ‘fracking’ (which sees water pumped at high pressure into gas-bearing rock) are nothing, I would suggest, compared to burning coal.