China’s fabled pollution comes in various levels. A couple of weeks ago, when I was in Wuhan, we had a day of silver-grey overcast skies that doesn’t seem to affect the human function too much.
However, visiting the Beijing motor show in 2012, we had a day of proper smog: grey-brown skies, eerie flat light and a sense (to me at least) that there wasn’t enough free oxygen around.
Beijing pollution made headline news in the English language newspaper during the trip to Wuhan. The city government is introducing a ‘Heavy Pollution Contingency Plan’ with ‘Blue, Yellow, Orange and Red’ warning levels.
According to media reports, if the city declares a ‘Red’ alert, schools will close, 80 per cent of government cars have to stop travelling and private cars can only enter the city on alternate days. Factories may also be ordered to shut down.
Interestingly, the Chinese media said that more “watering carts and sprinkler trucks” would be deployed. Indeed, I saw one of these for the first time in Wuhan. Its job was to wet the roads in order to keep the atmospheric dust down.
Much of Beijing's particulate pollution comes from building works as well as from coal-fired power stations and factories. Cars, although there are a hell of a lot of them around, are not the biggest issue. However, there is a longer-term pollution fix on the horizon and China looks like it is about to quietly grab it with both hands.
Switching to gas power is high on the agenda in both China and neighbouring Japan. If China could replace its coal-fired power stations in populated areas and factories could switch to local gas generation for power – gas is extremely clean burning in terms of health-damaging pollutants - air pollution levels would be reduced dramatically.
Japan also has a close eye on a ‘dash for gas’ because it needs to fill its power generation hole as it starts to turn off its nuclear power plants permanently.
By handy coincidence, just as America’s shale gas revolution really gets underway, the Panama Canal is being widened, allowing much bigger vessels –such as those carrying gas – to get to East Asia much more quickly.
Clearly, the gas revolution is about to hit Asia and the US (UK-based engine manufacturer Cummins is already working on gas-powered heavy truck engines) and Europe is still faffing around with wind turbines and electric vehicles. Moreover, Europe’s dash for diesel has resulted in vehicles being the biggest part of the problem in terms of urban pollution.
Which is why this humble Volkswagen Passat – which I borrowed from Autogas last week – is arguably a much more important part of your motoring future than any number of ‘cutting edge’ electric-powered and hybrid vehicles.
This VW was an LPG conversion (all future VWs from the new Up to the next-generation Passat are engineered to accommodate large factory-fitted Compressed Natural Gas tanks) but it proved a point. This Passat was whisper quiet (you can’t hear the engine at idle – what a joy after years of diesel) and had the legs for motorway travel, even if flooring the 1.4 TSi engine didn’t extract much performance. And the fuel is currently half the price of petrol. Autogas also claims we are nearly all just five minutes from an LPG pump. Even though I’m based in central London, it turned out to be true.
But I knew that, in terms of tailpipe pollution, the Passat was the next best thing to an electric car, which is what matters in urban motoring. I’ve already driven the factory VW Up CNG-powered car, which had an impressively responsive engine and felt no different to a petrol-powered car.
That Up is rated at 79g/km in CO2 and tailpipe emissions are hard to measure. So why plug your 74g/km electric car into the mains to top up with electricity created by gas-powered power stations? Perhaps we should cut out the middle man, gear up to add CNG pumps to out forecourts, and just drive (much cheaper) gas-powered cars?