Trucks power the Chinese economy, at a suffocating cost

Trucks power the Chinese economy, at a suffocating cost

Guangzhou, China: Every night, columns of hulking blue and red freight trucks invade China’s major cities with a reverberating roar of engines and dark clouds of diesel exhaust so thick it dims headlights.

By daybreak in this sprawling metropolis in southeastern China, residents near thoroughfares who leave their windows open overnight find their faces stiff with a dark layer of diesel soot.

After Mary Leung opens her tiny open-air shop along a major road soon after dawn, she must wipe the soot off her countertops and tables; the tiny yellow-and-olive bird that has kept her company is harder to clean.

Trucks are the mules of China’s spectacularly expanding economy—ubiquitous and essential, yet highly noxious.

Trucks here burn diesel contaminated with more than 130 times the pollution-causing sulphur that the US allows in most diesel. While car sales in China are now growing even faster than truck sales, trucks are by far the largest source of street-level pollution.

Tiny particles of sulphur-laden soot penetrate deep into residents’ lungs, interfering with the absorption of oxygen. Nitrogen oxides from truck exhaust, which build all night because cities limit truck traffic by day, bind each morning with petrol fumes from China’s growing car fleet to form dense smog that inflames lungs and can cause severe coughing and asthma.

The 10 million trucks on Chinese roads, more than a quarter of all vehicles in this country, are a major reason that China accounts for half the world’s annual increase in oil consumption. Sating their thirst helped push the price of oil to record levels this year, before a recent decline, and has propelled China past the US this year as the world’s largest emitter of global-warming gases.

Yet, cleaning up truck pollution presents complex problems for China’s leaders.

For instance, regulators have begun raising emissions standards for new trucks, but have left millions of older ones belching black smoke. Forcing businesses and farmers to buy more-expensive vehicles could put a drag on the economy, which already faces inflationary pressure from rising food prices and other costs.

That fear of inflation—not to mention political and social unrest—has led Beijing to prevent the country’s mostly state-owned oil firms from increasing diesel prices at the pump in pace with global oil prices. But price controls create a vicious circle. Oil giants such as China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec), losing money on every gallon of diesel they refine because of the low sales prices, upgrade refineries slowly, if at all, and seek out cheap crude with high levels of sulphur to make diesel, negating the effects of higher emissions standards for new vehicles.

“Sinopec is trying our best to purchase low-quality crudes—much heavier and more sulphur content," said Evan Jia, a Sinopec spokesman. “We buy those kinds of crudes to lower the purchasing cost."

Low state-subsidized diesel prices frequently make trucks more cost-effective than trains, which pollute less. Sales of large freight trucks in China outpace those in the US by a wide margin. Demand for diesel at service stations is so great, and supplies are so tight, that rationing and shortages have become common. Truck drivers idle for hours only to be allowed to buy as little as five gallons of fuel.

China has stepped up rail services for hauling freight, but not fast enough to slow rapid growth in the truck fleet. Since 2000, sales of heavy-duty trucks have risen sixfold while car sales have risen eightfold.

This has created myriad problems, from gridlock that chokes China’s cities to pollution that chokes its citizens, contributing each year to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths from heart and lung problems, according to the World Bank.

Working in the fumes

Leung, the shopkeeper, is a slender, tidy, 44-year-old woman with a cheery disposition. She used to keep her little bird in a wooden cage over the entrance to the two battered plastic tables where she serves soft drinks and fresh waffles for less than 40 cents (Rs15.8) each.

All day, trucks, buses and cars grind past. While large trucks are banned in Guangzhou from 7am to 9pm, some obtain special permits for daytime access. And many medium-size trucks with diesel engines are allowed in the city during the day if they carry local licence plates. “We had to put out bowls of water in the cage," Leung said, so the bird could constantly wash itself.

She finally moved the bird, a Pekin Robin, to her home on a quieter street, leaving the cage empty. She tries not to think about what the exhaust is doing to her own health. “My throat hurts all the time," she said. “I suck on throat lozenges for it. It’s unbearable."

International experts say that hundreds of millions of Chinese are exposed every day to the potentially lethal mix of soot particles and smog. American regulators have labelled diesel soot a likely carcinogen. A growing body of academic literature blames tiny air-borne particles from diesel exhaust, coal-fired power plants and other sources for up to 90% of all deaths from out-door air pollution, because the particles penetrate so deeply into lungs. The particles can float for hundreds of kilometres, but the greatest effects are on people near the source of the pollution.

Diesel engines also emit large quantities of nitrogen oxides, which react with petrol fumes to produce photochemical smog when hit by sunlight.

Leung said she had little choice but to stick it out.

She and her husband had a shop on a less-busy street, but the building was torn down and the local government gave her the current lease as a substitute. They are not allowed to sell the lease or apply for a different one, and the shop is their sole means of support for two daughters, the elder one the first in the family to go to college.

The only option, Leung said, is to hope that her building will be condemned so the city will issue her a lease in a more healthful location. “I’m dreaming of it," she said. In the meantime, she keeps cleaning her tables and countertops below the empty bird cage. “I have to work in order to eat," she said.

Poor fuel in dirty trucks

In nearby Shenzhen, Chan Kin-fun also faces economic realities.

A salesman shows Chan, the operations manager of a Hong Kong trucking company, around the towering tractor cabs at a Sinotruk dealership. Even the most modern cabs have engines that emit at least three times the levels of nitrogen oxides of new American trucks and at least seven times the particles—even with clean, low-sulphur diesel.

Building a truck that meets top emissions standards is not just a question of spending a little extra on better pollution-control equipment. It usually requires radical engine redesigns, which can add thousands of dollars to a truck’s price.

But the opportunities for further improvements in emissions per vehicle are limited by poor fuel quality.

The US allows maximum sulphur concentrations of just 15 parts per million for most diesel fuels, while China allows up to 2,000 parts per million. The average sulphur in American fuel is limited to 30 parts per million; China allows up to 800 parts per million.

sulphur clogs emissions control equipment, and the more advanced the equipment, the more vulnerable it is to sulphur damage. And China lacks an effective inspection system to enforce even its more lenient standards.

The cleaner fuel available in cities such as Guangzhou and Beijing helps limit car pollution. But truck drivers tend to fill up in rural areas with less expensive high-sulphur fuel.

Western oil companies pay extra to buy low-sulphur crude because removing sulphur through refining is difficult. But in a bid to control inflation, the Chinese government orders service stations to sell petrol and diesel at prices so low that they frequently fall below refiners’ costs.

That gives refiners such as Sinopec a strong incentive to buy the cheapest possible crude. Jia, the spokesman, said the company then refined the crude to meet China’s standards. Low diesel prices also leave oil company refinery divisions with little money to invest in modernization.

The Chinese government raised regulated prices of petrol and diesel by nearly 10% on 1 November, to the yuan equivalent of $2.65 a gallon (3.8 litres).

But that still roughly equals the wholesale price of diesel on international markets and is slightly higher than the wholesale price of petrol, leaving nothing to cover the cost of distributing fuel to service stations, not to mention profit. So refineries and service stations have been cutting back on sales, to the dismay of truckers.

Behind wheel, a hard life

After four years of coping with diesel shortages every few months, Zhang Yanchao, a 33-year-old trucker, thought he had become inured to lining up for fuel. But that was before he waited 10 hours on a recent night outside Guangzhou and was then allowed to buy just a quarter-tank of diesel.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen," he said. “I couldn’t get any sleep since I had to keep moving forward in the line of trucks all night long."

Two dozen truckers said in interviews here in Guangzhou and in Shenzhen that fuel shortages had become chronic. The shortages also contribute to air pollution, with trucks idling for hours as they wait in line. Rapid highway construction has reduced travel time in much of China.

A half-dozen truckers who regularly drive from Shandong province, 1,000 miles north-east of Guangzhou, said that what had been a three-day trip five years ago took only two days in the summer of this year, thanks to the new expressways. But they said long waits for fuel had since lengthened the trip to four days.

The journeys are tough on drivers’ health, as they breathe the exhaust of the trucks ahead of them. “When a truck driver is not eating rice, he’s eating diesel," said Zhang over a dinner of rice and vegetables at a grimy café here as his brakes were repaired.

He acknowledged that the diesel exhaust was probably not good for him, and said many truck drivers developed coughs.

“Coughing comes with old age, but driving a truck makes it worse," he said. “But coughing can come from these cigarettes as well."

One response to China’s truck-pollution problem would be to ban older trucks. But the government has resisted such a radical step, fearing the costs not just to the economy, but to the truckers and to members of their extended families, who typically pool their savings to finance a truck.

Another obstacle to change may be the lack of public criticism of truck pollution. While environmental groups are rapidly multiplying in China, vehicle pollution has attracted little attention—and much resignation among truckers and residents alike.

Zhang typified that reaction when he said, surveying the dingy truck stop, “If you don’t like pollution, go live in the mountains."