Can the world handle 2 billion cars?

brilliance-granse-minibus
TECHNOLOGY DIGESTION: Chinese automaker and state-owned enterprise now builds the "Granse" minibus pictured here based on the "Granvia" minibus by Toyota the company used to build as part of a joint venture with the Japanese automaker.

Maybe, maybe not. But we’re certainly going to find out. The blossoming love affair between middle class Chinese and cars means we can expect hundreds of millions more of the infernal combustion machines in coming years.

But a world of 2 billion cars is also a world with a different climate, more sprawl, more mining and certainly more conflicts over resources (whether oil or lithium). Is that a world we want to live in, whether the cars are electric or not?

China has invested heavily in infrastructure to make the country car-friendly: roads, bridges, tunnels—an orgy of construction that happens to double as a stimulus plan. A pristine four-lane toll highway leads out of the city of Shenyang in northeastern China and every other Chinese city of size, most empty except for a few trucks and official convoys speeding past in their specially licensed black sedans. But within a few years, the lanes will be crowded with cars and the next cycle of road-building will begin. Beijing started its second ring road in the 1980s and completed its sixth—stretching 187 kilometers around the sprawling capital—in 2009.

Predictable results have followed: traffic jams that stretch for kilometers, sprawling suburbia and rising fuel prices. The vice mayor of Beijing was recently “exiled” to work in Xinjiang province after a debacle of some 30,000 vehicles being registered in a few weeks in December in anticipation of a curb on new auto registry. But the capital’s roughly 4.8 million vehicles have turned the city’s roads into sinuous parking lots and a haze covers the cities of China—a combination of the smoke of a million coal fires and all the vehicles’ exhaust obscuring the skyline with smog’s airlight, turning a Beijing sunrise from rosy to peach.

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dbiello

I am an award-winning journalist writing primarily about the environment and energy. I have a book coming out in November 2016 about whether the planet has entered a new geologic age as a result of people's impacts and, if so, what we should do about this Anthropocene. It's called The Unnatural World. I’ve been writing for Scientific American since 2005 and have written on subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology for both the Web site and magazine. I’ve been reporting on the environment and energy since 1999 — long enough to be cynical but not long enough to be depressed. I am the author of a children’s book on bullet trains and write for publications ranging from Foreign Policy to The New Republic, speak on news radio and shows such as WNYC’s The Takeaway, NHPR’s Word of Mouth, and PRI’s The World and appear on television, ranging from The Weather Channel to serving as host of Beyond the Light Switch and the forthcoming The Ethanol Effect for PBS. I also happen to think Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species is a surprisingly good read.