Photograph by Hu Qingming, Imaginechina/AP

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A worker recharges an electric taxi at a charging station in Beijing, China earlier this year. The World Bank released a study April 20 raising questions about China's efforts to support the electric vehicle market.

Photograph by Hu Qingming, Imaginechina/AP

China’s Electric Car Drive: Impressive, But Not Enough

China's electric vehicle program is the world's most ambitious, but a new World Bank report raises questions on sustainability.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Rapid motorization in China has made it the world's largest auto market, and government support for plug-in vehicles has made the nation a target for the electric vehicle ambitions on display at this week's Shanghai auto show.

But China's impressive efforts on electric cars do not necessarily put the nation on the road to an environmentally sustainable transportation system, concludes a study released today (pdf) by the World Bank.

As more people in China swap their bikes, scooters, public transit and walking for passenger cars, the World Bank is stepping back to plot its strategy for helping China improve its transportation system.

The World Bank has lent $46 billion globally in the transport sector since 2000, including $9.4 billion in the 2010 fiscal year, mostly to build roads. Recognizing transport as crucial for economic growth and trade, the World Bank seeks to help countries develop safe transport services that produce minimal carbon emissions, and are accessible to the poor.

When it comes to electric vehicles, "A lot of people talk about China leading and running away with it," said Oliver Hazimeh, director of the management consulting firm PRTM, which has just completed the study for the World Bank on China's New Energy Vehicle (NEV) Program. The report hails China's pursuit of "the most ambitious electrification program in the world." But at this early stage, said Hazimeh, long-term leadership and a truly sustainable transportation system are far from guaranteed.

In a statement about today's report, Ede Ijjasz, sustainable development manager for the World Bank in China and Mongolia, called China's plan to invest $15 billion in vehicle electrification "remarkable and second to none."

Yet according to Shomik Mehndiratta, who commissioned and oversaw the report last year as senior transport specialist in the World Bank's sustainable development unit for China and Mongolia, Chinese mayors have been "doing what U.S. mayors did from the 1960s." They are generally "trying to accommodate" growing numbers of vehicles by building infrastructure and roads. "That cannot be the only response to motorization." It's also important to manage the shift, he said, and treat electric vehicles as only one piece of a system that incorporates car-free modes of transportation.

Mehndiratta said his team's overriding goal is to help China and Chinese cities improve their transport, often focusing on walking, cycling, and public transport. "More and more our role is how to deal with climate change," he said.

When it comes to "green transport," Chinese leaders "think almost exclusively about going toward EVs," said Mehndiratta. The widespread notion that "technology is the answer to everything" is like the American mindset 50 years ago. He warned against focusing too much on electric vehicles in China today as "a panacea."

That is something electric vehicles do not offer. Urban congestion, sprawl, inefficient land use, and other problems correlate to the large number of private vehicles, regardless of whether they plug in or gas up. Addressing these issues will require "a more radical reinvention of urban personal mobility systems," according to today's study.

Even some environmental benefits are not a sure thing. According to the World Bank study, "The biggest challenge faced by China is that the current Chinese electricity grid produces relatively high GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions." And the "long remaining lifetime" of existing coal plants means the country's electricity generation will likely remain greenhouse-gas-intensive "for a significant period of time."

As a result, the study authors say "a new framework for maximizing GHG benefits" must be developed in order for China to realize the full emission benefits possible with electric vehicles.

(Related from National Geographic magazine: "China's Middle Class: Gilded Age, Gilded Cage")

Plug-in vehicles can result in lower carbon emissions even when drawing electricity from a grid that relies heavily on "old coal" power plants, the researchers note. However, "Absent a sustained focus on environmental outcomes," they conclude, "the various policies to promote NEVs could result in substantial economic and energy benefits but fall short of the hoped-for reductions in greenhouse gas and urban air pollution."

Will China lead the world in private purchases of electric vehicles? At this point, said Hazimeh, the "economic equation is not there." More affluent consumers are seeking higher-end vehicles from established luxury brands as status symbols. "Will they buy a BYD?" he asked, referring to the Chinese battery giant and plug-in vehicle developer. "Probably not. Maybe a Volt." Chinese consumers just transitioning from scooters to their first passenger car, meanwhile, won't be able to afford most electric models.

The report identifies several areas where the World Bank could work with China's central and local governments to support deployment of "new energy" vehicles, and maximize their environmental benefits. For example, the World Bank's experience with large-scale infrastructure projects could be put toward development of a carbon emission pricing and monitoring system, as well as standards for vehicle charging equipment. World Bank loans could help finance infrastructure and a "comprehensive electric vehicle-ecosystem" pilot project that would include investment in battery "swap" stations, batteries, and development of software and hardware for managing loads on the grid caused by an influx of plug-in cars.