China’s Electric Vehicle Boom Comes With Red Alert for Smog

Beijing Issues Red Alert On Air Pollution For The First Time
Beijing, December 10, 2015 (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Too little, too late? On December 6, Reuters reported China would eclipse the U.S. as the global leader in electric vehicle sales. The following day, air quality in the capital city of Beijing was so bad the government issued a “red alert” for smog, banning about half area vehicles from the road and warning citizens to stay indoors due to public health concerns.

With conditions forcing drivers to use headlights by mid-day, Beijing has become a frightening image of a society overrun by air pollution, and the adoption of EVs may not happen fast enough.

The week of December 7 began with positive news from the electric car sector. According to projections through the end of December, China would top the U.S. as the worldwide leader in EV sales with about 250,000 units expected by the January. China’s Association of Automobile Manufacturers said the market had grown 290% through October compared to 2014.

Before the good news could be savored, the red alert for air quality went out on December 8 as contaminants hit levels 1o times above what the World Health Organization considers stable, CNN reported. It was the worst day of air quality since the new system of alerts was introduced by the Chinese government. Beijing residents were seen wearing masks to protect themselves from air so dangerous it could have an instant impact on even healthy people.

If there was any silver lining to the events, it came in a flurry of interest for electric cars on sale in China. Even with government incentives topping $15,000 in some areas, the market share of plug-ins remains tiny. However, EVs are not banned during red-alert days, and this perk made dealerships busier than normal.


Immediately after the vehicle ban went into place, electric car dealers were taking a higher volume of calls about plug-in models, Reuters reported. BYD, the Chinese EV maker backed by Berkshire Hathaway, had an advertising campaign based on a lower level of pollution warnings that it ran when the red alert hit the city.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows China is the world’s largest importer of oil, which is used to power the growing stock of cars and trucks nationwide. Electricity generation, though still powered largely by coal in China, does offer a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as recent studies about EV use in America’s dirtiest grids confirm.

Did any of this news resonate with the Paris Climate Change Conference taking place the same week? China is taking steps to increase the share of renewables in its electricity generation, but a report by the CBC noted four new coal-fired plants are opening every week to meet the country’s energy demands.

Even with the higher demand for EVs and record sales, it’s hard to see bright skies ahead in the future for Beijing.

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