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"In-Use Vehicle Emissions in China — Tianjin Study"

Traffic on the Beijing-Tianjin expressway, July 15, 2008. A new expressway linking Beijing to the nearby city of Tianjin, opened for traffic on July 15, 2008.
AP Photo

"In-Use Vehicle Emissions in China — Tianjin Study"

Discussion Paper 2008-08, Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

October 2008

Author: Hongyan He Oliver, Former Research Fellow, Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, 2004–2009

Belfer Center Discussion Papers

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Energy Technology Innovation Policy; Environment and Natural Resources; Science, Technology, and Public Policy



Rapid economic growth, growing mobility, increasing purchasing power, and rising demand for goods have made China one of the fastest growing auto markets in the world. From 1990 to 2007, the total number of registered civil-use vehicles in China grew from 5.5 million to 57 million (not including motorcycles). The majority of these vehicles are used in populous metropolitan areas. Consequently, vehicle emissions have become an increasingly conspicuous contributor to air pollution in Chinese urban areas.

Despite the fact that China has made much progress in setting up standards regulating new vehicle emissions and fuel quality, the understanding of environmental performance of in-use vehicles has been rather poor. From March 2005 to December 2006, a research team, headed by the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at Harvard University and in collaboration with the China Automotive Research Center, Tsinghua University (the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering), and the International Sustainable Systems Research Center (associated with University of California, Riverside), carried out a project in Tianjin to study emissions from on-road vehicles.

The study yielded some important insights regarding vehicle emissions control in China.

  • The most powerful policy instrument for reducing emissions from new vehicles is tightened standards. The rigorousness of Chinese emission standards lags considerably behind that of developed countries, but China is still ahead of many of its developing country peers.
  • Low-end auto products in China, even newer models, often suffer from poor environmental performance. Although low-end auto products satisfy the demands of many consumers, the national government could enhance its enforcement of the product approval and certification process.
  • Scrapping carbureted light-duty vehicles can be an effective way to reduce CO and VOC emissions from mobile sources. Replacing carbureted taxis and personal vehicles with vehicles of similar size that are in compliance with the currant emission standards could reduce roughly a quarter of all mobile VOC emissions and one seventh of all mobile CO emissions in Tianjin. Accelerating fleet turnover rate (especially taxis and buses) will likely help improving air quality in most cities.
  • Replacing gasoline buses with cleaner diesel buses will lead to considerable reductions of VOC and CO levels, while replacing or retrofitting dirty, high-mileage diesel buses will lead to significant reductions of PM and NOx emissions. To help taxi and bus companies shoulder the costs, the government may consider providing financial incentives such as subsides or tax breaks for the early retirement (or retrofitting) of dirty taxis and buses.
  • Inspection and Maintenance programs for in-use vehicles are weak. A considerable percentage of the light-duty vehicles made in the early 2000s could not meet their certified emission standards at the time of the study (2005), which suggests that Tianjin lacked an effective I/M program to ensure that in-use vehicles are in consistent compliance with emission standards. Questions linger as to what extent emissions tests are carried out honestly and rigorously and about how local environmental protection agencies can better supervise inspection stations.


For more information about this publication please contact the ETIP Coordinator at 617-496-5584.

For Academic Citation:

Oliver, Hongyan He. "In-Use Vehicle Emissions in China — Tianjin Study." Discussion Paper 2008-08, Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2008.

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