From Earth Day to the Auto Show

Energy efficiency is a top theme in Beijing, but so too is the allure of one’s own wheels.

Earth Day dawned cold and rainy in Beijing, but the real damper on any festive mood this year is the Yushu Earthquake, which occurred just one week ago and claimed over 2000 lives. April 21 marked a day of remembrance for the victims, and the nation also observed three minutes of silence.

While relatively quiet this year, China has embraced Earth Day in the last decade. As elsewhere internationally, much activity focuses on public education, such as a Ministry of Land and Natural Resources effort focused on resource conservation. Earth Day is also the focus for a major Green Business Summit, this year held in Chengdu . WRI’s President Jonathan Lash and China Country Director Zou Ji will be among many environmentalists, leading policymakers and CEOs speaking at the forum.

Beijing’s big celebration this month is less oriented toward environmental protection, despite some interesting new age vehicles – that is the Beijing Auto Show. Clean transportation is a major theme , and while there are many newer, cleaner vehicles being shown, even the most energy-saving private automobile uses more energy than a bicycle or well-designed public transportation. However, it is also worth putting the Chinese vehicle market into perspective – despite the media hype Chinese still drive many fewer vehicles than Americans. The Beijing-based consulting firm Dragonomics estimates that as of September 2009, there were 46 million passenger vehicles in China. In comparison, in 2007, the United States had almost 240 million. WRI compared the 2007 figures in this chart, and while there are now 3 ½ vehicles for every 100 people in China, in the U.S. the comparable number is 80 for every 100 people. In other words, the U.S. has a vehicle for every person of driving age.

If China has so many fewer vehicles, why is it being called the “world’s biggest auto market?” While there are fewer vehicles on the road, today there are more new vehicle purchases each year in China than in the U.S. While most Americans buy a new vehicle to replace an old one, in China most car buyers are purchasing their first car. Even with the robust market analysts are predicting (some 10-25% growth this year), it would take most of the next decade to reach U.S. total car numbers – and that calculation is not considering what would necessarily be a growing number of vehicles that will need to be retired.

So two bottom lines out of the auto show: 1. The Chinese car market is big, but most Chinese do not drive cars, and 2. There is a lot of action in the green and small, energy-efficient side of the market.

Photo by Smokingpermitted, courtesy of a Attribution 2.0 Generic.