Pollution’s So Bad in China, the Government Is Yanking Millions of Cars off Roads

A failure to meet better air-quality targets is spurring the Asian nation to change up its smog-cutting tactics.

(Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

May 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It's no secret that China’s air is incredibly polluted. Bicyclists there regularly wear face masks to avoid breathing in fine particulate matter, and Panasonic even gives its Chinese workers hazard pay for having to inhale the toxic haze. Government officials are getting serious about eliminating the smoggy conditions. This week the nation’s State Council announced that it plans to kick up to 6 million cars that don’t meet new emissions standards off Chinese roads.

Xu Shaoshi, the chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, said that putting these car removal measures in place is necessary because of the “tough situation” the country finds itself in, reported The Guardian. China failed to reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides coming out of car exhaust pipes between 2011 and 2013.

Hardest hit by the noxious discharge cars are emitting is the northeast part of the country. Seven of China’s most polluted cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, are in the region. Last winter, smoggy conditions in the capital provided an apocalyptic backdrop for a short film starring that nation’s most well-known dissident, Ai Wei Wei. In January the pollution led city officials to put a fake image of the sun on an LED billboard.

Most of the cars affected by this latest policy shift are likely to be older vehicles that don’t meet the nation’s current automobile emissions standards. According to the Chinese government, a full 7.8 percent of cars on the road don’t meet the regulations. Official news agency Xinhua reports that the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides pouring out of car exhaust pipes in Beijing account for 31.1 percent of that city’s air pollution.

This renewed commitment to oversight and reduction of vehicle emissions isn’t just a one-shot deal. Next year, the country will remove an additional 5 million cars. Like their European counterparts, several Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, are limiting the number of vehicle licenses issued. Given the country’s population of 1.35 billion, the total number of cars being removed seems comparatively tiny. Then again, when it comes to improving air quality, every car that’s no longer on the road is a small victory.