China’s Transportation Sector: Problematic Polluter or Future-Oriented Industry


It should come as no surprise that China’s transportation industry has experienced tremendous growth over the past decades because at the end of the day, the transportation sector tends to be one of the most interconnected components of any economy… China in no way represents an exception in this respect.

We could write an entire novel on the massive infrastructure investments which have taken place over the years and are taking place as this article is being written. Or about just how many buildings have entered and are entering the Chinese market. Perhaps about the newly-found prosperity of the just as new Chinese middle class, with the consumerist implication this brings about (doubled by a more and more internal consumption-oriented economy). Examples of increased economic activity abound and in all of the previously mentioned examples as well as many more, the key role of the transportation sector is worth highlighting.

The same way, a more than reasonable role in the economic success story (thus far, at least) of China with respect to exports has been represented by the transportation sector. Had the average Chinese citizen been asked if he thought it was possible for Chinese products to be shipped tens of thousands of miles away back in the Mao Zedong days, the result would have undoubtedly been an outburst of laughter. Even if we were to fast-forward to the days of Deng Xiaoping and his commerce-oriented goals, let’s just say today’s status quo would have been considered an optimistic dream and nothing more.

Yet here we are.

Whether we are referring to automobiles, specialized shipping vehicles, high-speed trains, airplanes or an impressively vast commercial fleet, one cannot help but feel overwhelmed when glancing over the Chinese transportation industry.

However, this came at a (steep) cost.

While the proverbial West has its own set of sins to account for when it comes to pollution, it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that textbook examples when it comes to pollution tend to be China-centric… and, in many cases, justifiably so. Even decades ago, for example during the Jiang Zemin regime, frustrations started building up due to the perception that the authorities were interested in economic growth at any cost. And from lifestyle deterioration due to pollution all the way to the personal tragedies caused by the illnesses it brought about, examples of “costs” abound.

The Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping regimes ended up being essentially forced to pay more attention to this dimension and, indeed, results started appearing. At this point a shot, producing a snapshot of the Chinese transportation industry requires a great deal of combing through stereotypes on all imaginable fronts.

Is it true that China is now the global leader when it comes to new energy sources such as wind and solar energy?

Yes, it is.

Is it true that China can still be considered a highly pollutING and pollutED nation? Unfortunately, the answer to such questions tends to once again be yes.

At the end of the day, the name of the game is acknowledging that a great deal of progress is needed when it comes to metrics such as pollution but, at the same time, identifying key areas in which existing breakthroughs cannot and should not be ignored. With that in mind, here are just a few of the more recent ones:

  1. Heavy duty vehicles (commonly referred to as HDVs) being gradually eliminated from major cities (as became the norm in other jurisdictions such as the European Union). For example, as of late last year (December of 2018), CHINA III diesel HDVs were no longer allowed to be present in the 5th ring road of Beijing and as of late this year, they will be banned from Beijing altogether (an administrative area roughly the size of Belgium)
  2. By 2020, 30 modern logistics hubs are expected to be built and within another five years, that number is expected to increase all the way to 150
  3. Toward the end of 2018, a three-year framework for so called Connected Smart Ships has been agreed upon, making it clear that this means of transportation is not ignored either
  4. The same principle applies toward Intelligent Connected Vehicles, with the end of 2018 also bringing about a coherent plan when it comes to this dimension

From concrete agreements and already-implemented plans to expected measures on all fronts (from placing caps on the production of conventional vehicles to facilitating the production of Intelligent Connected Vehicles, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles, etc.), it becomes abundantly clear that we are not simply talking about rhetoric when it comes to modernizing the colossus that is China’s transportation industry.

It remains to be seen what the future holds with respect to China but also other economic superpowers. Will the current anti-pollution trends persist or are new trends emerging due to decisions such as the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accord? At the end of the day, it’s important to embrace a realistic collective approach because whether we choose to ignore this reality or not, we are all stakeholders in this global equation.

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