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Heavy traffic on a highway during the morning rush hours in Shanghai last year. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Heavy traffic on a highway during the morning rush hours in Shanghai last year. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The Green Highway

EV sales surge rests with government Add to ...

Sales of all-electric, emission-free vehicles have been minuscule and well below the hopes of manufacturers like Nissan, which bravely jumped into the market with both feet. What is likely the only thing that is going to spike demand? Government regulations. They’re coming.

Let’s take a look at what is going on in the world’s largest automotive market, China. By the end of this decade, China will be putting 30 million new vehicles on the road per year. Air pollution in cities like Beijing is so serious that the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa is warning Canadians: “Air pollution is severe, especially in heavily industrialized areas. Take this health risk into account and consult your physician prior to travelling (to China) if you suffer from respiratory problems.”

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China’s smog has also swept over some of Japan’s coastal areas; Japan’s environment ministry has reported it is causing people to suffer stinging eyes and sore throats.

I have travelled to China twice in the last three years and have visited many cities in the northern half of the country. I saw a blue sky exactly once; thick grey smog covers the sun all day. In Beijing, traffic grid lock is unending and, while many cars are modern with modern emission control, the truck fleet of ancient diesels spews black smoke everywhere. It has been so bad that Beijing’s massive new airport has had to be shut because pilots couldn’t see the ground.

China’s capital has been choked by four bouts of heavy smog in the past month. In the midst of it, China’s new premier, Wen Jiabao, issued calls for government and industry to get serious about pollution. That’s a signal something big is about to happen.

The central government of China has invested billions in electric vehicle research and development and one gets the sense that it’s just waiting until it has enough domestic EV production under Chinese control to lower the boom by imposing large-scale emission-free zones and/or low-emission zones (LEZ). That would set off a major shift to electrics.

China will not be first to do so. More than 200 cities and towns in 10 countries in Europe already have, or are preparing to launch, low-emission zones. In these, some vehicles may be banned altogether and drivers of others may be fined if they enter the LEZ. The European Union says poor air quality kills more people in Europe each year than road accidents.

London has had a low-emission zone since 2008, covering almost all of Greater London – the largest such zone in the world. Nearly every year since, tougher emissions standards have been applied to more vehicles.

Many Londoners assumed the low-emission zone was aimed at commercial vehicles only, but that’s not the case. Last year, drivers of older diesel-engine camper vans, along with various other older vehicles, were required to spend thousands of pounds on new exhaust systems if they wanted to drive in London. Otherwise they had to pay a £100 ($156) or £200 charge for every day of driving in London or a £500 fine. Or buy a new low-emissions vehicle.

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan-Renault, a champion of electric cars, has drawn doubters for stating that 10 per cent of new-car sales will be electrics by 2020. How can that be possible? Governments will “order” it.

Beijing. London. Who’s next?