Can the world handle 2 billion cars?

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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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What to do about coal ash?

Here’s a little video I did two years after the “Christmas coal ash spill” in Tennessee. The long and the short of it is we still don’t know what to do with all the ash leftover after our coal burning. And, unlike CO2 and other air pollutants, coal ash doesn’t get a lot of attention. But all of our pollution controls are, essentially, moving the problem of pollutants from our air (via smokestacks) to our water (via leaching from coal ash).

The Clean Revolution

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Clean Coal?

I continue to work at a snail’s pace on my book (more literally my book proposal) on the slow-creeping tide of change in our energy supplies. I’m not just talking the current fad for wind farms and solar panels on rooftops, but an incremental but monumental effort to replace fire—mankind’s oldest technology, possibly—with some other way of harnessing energy for our needs. This is the work of decades if not centuries. After all, it took millennia for the harnessing of fire to bear full fruit in the form of the coal-fired power plant or an internal combustion engine.

Anyway, thoughts, suggestions, help welcome. The “green” revolution is dead, long live the clean revolution!