China developing timetable to end sales, production of gasoline cars

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BYD Qin EV300

BYD Qin EV300

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The auto industry has now grudgingly accepted that battery-electric cars will make up some portion of the world's new vehicles in years to come.

But a milestone in that trend may have come today, in news from China.

Policy makers in the world's most populous country, and largest car market, are developing a timetable to end production and sales of new vehicles with gasoline engines.

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Unlike Norway, The Netherlands, France, and the U.K., no year is yet associated with the plans, which are still being created "with relevant departments."

But as The Associated Press reported Sunday morning, the official Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily attributed the statement to a Chinese deputy industry minister, Xin Guobin.

Speaking Sunday morning at "an auto industry forum," the AP wrote, Xin said his ministry has begun "research on formulating a timetable to stop production and sales of traditional energy vehicles," as he noted "some countries" have already done.

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

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"Those measures will certainly bring profound changes for our car industry's development," he said, suggesting that "turbulent" times lay ahead for the global auto industry.

In China, if it's reported in official state media, it's a policy signal to the world.

Three trends likely underlie the decision. First, China's major cities all suffer from extreme air pollution, due to emissions not only from vehicles but also industrial plants often using outdated or uncontrolled combustion technologies.

READ THIS: China's electric-car sales now twice those in US for Jan-June 2017

The severe pollution has become a political issue, and both national and local governments are making visible efforts to clamp down on some egregious or highly visible polluters.

Second, no debate over climate science exists within China's national government: the scientific consensus is accepted, respected, and viewed as a reason for drastic policy action.

That includes rapid increases in renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles.

Beijing smog

Beijing smog

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Third, and perhaps most important, China's government-industrial complex has long had a trio of interrelated goals to dominate crucial 21st-century industries.

The country intends to use policy levers to ensure that its domestic companies have the largest shares of global production of photovoltaic solar cells, current and future battery cells, and electric cars.

National, state, and local governments in China are using policies that include both carrots and sticks to increase electric-car numbers, and after a slow start a few years ago, it seems to be working.

CHECK OUT: When will we see 'tailpipes' on cars as morally wrong?

In the first six months of this year, Chinese new-car buyers purchased twice as many electric cars as did buyers in the U.S. market, now the world's second-largest.

The Trump Administration in the U.S., meanwhile, has slashed environmental enforcement efforts, and now seems likely to freeze or even roll back carbon-emission limits on new vehicles for model years 2022 through 2025.

Nevertheless, consider that the first four-seat, mass-market electric car went on sale in December 2010, less than seven years ago.

Buick Velite 5 to be sold in China (Chevrolet Volt in North America)

Buick Velite 5 to be sold in China (Chevrolet Volt in North America)

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The fact that smaller countries at first (Norway has 5.2 million people) and now the world's largest country are planning to end sales of vehicles that burn fossil fuels is nothing short of remarkable.

Which countries lead this progress, and which countries (and their automakers) lag, delay, and work against that progress, remains to be seen.

But it should be fascinating to watch.

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