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Sustain to gain: August 2009 Archives

In China, India and South-East Asia the automobile industry hits the sky. The Chinese market is by January 2009 larger than the US market, the Indian Tata Nano is longed for and aspires to revolutionize the global car industry. The environmental degradation and unsustainability of this trend is obvious. But, of course, the Asian car boom doesn't come from nowhere. So let's look in detail at the good and the bad of the Asian car boom.

At least in China, the car industry is centrally planned and promoted. This copies the recipe of economic success in OECD countries. All formerly successful major economies, such as the US, Japan, and Europe have an established car industry and an internal automobile market. The car industry is understood as a so-called base-multiplier industry that substantially increases economic (and resource) turnover, i.e. the GDP. As a base-multiplier, the industry pushes a whole economy and supports many services around this base. The indirect effects of a substantial industry with huge economic turnover can be very beneficial, GDP-wise, for a society. This is particularly the case, when economic well-being starts from a low baseline. From this perspective, promoting the car industry makes sense.

Furthermore, a car is the focal point of a rising aspiring middle-class who understand it as the decisive status symbol. With GDP being the most predictive factor in car ownership, and indirectly car usage, a rapidly rising Asian economy develops into a car ownership society.

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Daylight in Beijing. Image credit: the author.

Finally, there a real mobility advantages for car users. At least in theory. The bad consequences are quite clear. With more than 10% annual grow in the Chinese automobile market, and similar rates in other countries, GHG emissions in the transport sector are rising rapidly, ridiculing any other marginal progress. Asian countries may be hit hardest first by climate change, especially by dwindling water supplies from the Himalaya and transformed monsoon patterns. Air pollution becomes or keeps being a dangerous health hazard in cities, and congestion immediately reduces any expected mobility benefits - for the car drivers, but also for users of other modes. Asian cities certainly don't become more attractive for tourists, and if business has a choice, it avoids the most polluted cities.

The consequences are worse than in established car cultures, particularly the US. Here, for decades infrastructure were built around the car, a possibility only for such a young country with significant oppurtinies in space and resources. However, Asian societes have developed over millenia, population densities are higher, and many important cities have been built before the advent of the automobile. As a result, cities are not designed for the car, and transformations certainly can't keep pace with Asias automobilization. However, unsuited infrastructures and high population magnify the social costs of the car. Infarct of major arteries is reached even with relatively low car ownership rate, and air pollution is concentrated where most people live (a so-called very high receptor density).

Fortunately, Asia is still not completely locked-in into carbon dependence. It's time, however, to develop a truly modern vision for sustainable mobility. This vision will only be sucessful, when the also the advantages of the Asian car boom are addressed and substituted for.