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Driven By Demand In China, World Vehicle Population Hits 1 Billion

Traffic in China

A recent report from the automobile trade journal Ward’s reveals that the number of vehicles in operation worldwide surpassed 1 billion in 2010. The latest numbers reveal a marked increased from 2009, where the number of registered vehicles in operation was 980 million.

However, perhaps even more important than the total number of vehicles in the world is where vehicle ownership is increasing.

In particular, the Chinese market has exploded over the past number of years, with automobile registrations shooting up 27.5%. The number of vehicles in the country has risen by 16.8 million units, bringing the total up to 78 million – which accounts for about half of the world’s global increase.

The added number of vehicles pushed China into second place in total number of vehicles, behind the US which is sitting at 239.8 million units.

But China may not remain in second place for long. It will only be a matter of time before the Chinese fleet surpasses the American fleet, as the U.S. automobile growth rate is slightly less than 1%. And with a current car ownership rate just under half the global average, there will be a lot of Chinese citizens looking to buy cars in the coming decades as the country continues to develop.

However, it is worrying to note that despite the Chinese government’s attempts to promote “clean car” technology, most of the cars purchased so far have been sports utilities vehicles, luxury cars, or gas guzzlers. Hybrid and electric vehicles are not the automobile of choice for most of the new car owners.

The Toyota Prius, the world’s most successful hybrid car, accounted for only one sale in 2010. In contrast, 850,000 SUVs hit the road in China, including 425 Hummers – an increase of 24%.

Some analysts are suggesting that the Chinese government needs to re-evaluate its “clean car” plans.  In particular, its objective to put 1 million “new energy” vehicles on the road in 2015 seems grossly inflated. Its subsidy of 60,000 yuan for electric vehicle purchases and 50,000 yuan for hybrids seems to have been ineffective in encouraging clean car uptake.

China has some significant hurdles to overcome if it is to adopt widespread clean car technology for its enormous population. Continuing to rely on fossil fuel intensive transportation is simply not an option if we are to tackle the consequences associated with climate change. But despite the subsidies and government measures deployed to encourage cleaner transportation, the general population seems reluctant to move away from fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, the government has so far been very effective in utilizing solar power for its energy consumption.

Is there anything more the government can do to encourage sustainable transportation? Or does the shift to sustainable transportation require a change in values from the general population?

Image CC licensed by Andrew Turner: traffic in Xi’an China

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