China's Pollution Police Are Watching

Cities across China are trying to force the worst-polluting cars and trucks onto the scrap heap
Photo illustration by 731; Photograph by Mark Anderson/Aurora Photos/Corbis

At 7 a.m. on a recent March morning, Xu Xiaoshun hops behind the wheel and turns the key. His Chang’an Leopard truck puffs out some black smoke and shivers to life as Xu begins his daily gamble. Every morning, including weekends, he leaves the one-room apartment he shares with his wife, drives almost 10 kilometers (six miles) to a market, picks up construction materials, and delivers them to job sites in and around Hangzhou, a city of 8.8 million. Often, his route takes him through areas of the city where his truck is banned because of its dirty emissions. “This truck isn’t allowed on some roads,” Xu says as he steps on the gas. “But when an order comes, I must take a risk.”

As air pollution in China becomes a national crisis—only three of the 74 cities monitored last year had acceptable air quality, according to a March report from the Ministry of Environmental Protection—Hangzhou and other cities have declared war on dirty cars and trucks. High-emission vehicles such as Xu’s must display yellow stickers on their windshields. (Cleaner cars are marked with green ones.) In Hangzhou, yellow-tagged cars and trucks are banned from the city’s main areas from 6 a.m. to midnight.

About 13 percent of China’s 224 million vehicles had yellow labels as of 2012, but they accounted for more than half of carbon monoxide emissions and more than 80 percent of airborne particulates, government statistics show. Cities across the nation must meet a national goal of forcing all yellow-label vehicles off the roads by 2017. In Hengshui, one of China’s most polluted cities, officials have mandated a phaseout of diesel-powered vehicles more than nine years old, triggering grumblings from owners in online forums.

Hangzhou’s air quality isn’t quite as bad as Hengshui’s. In a 2012 study, researchers found that most of the city’s pollutants were blown in from other regions. Still, 39.5 percent of Hangzhou’s air pollution was caused by local vehicles, the study found. “I’m not aware of another city that has a higher proportion” of car and truck emissions, says Guan Lili, deputy director of the city’s Vehicle Emission Control Department. Hangzhou introduced restrictions for yellow-label vehicles in 2008. To further curb pollution, officials in the city decided in March to issue 70 percent fewer license plates to new vehicles than in the previous 12 months.

The city rolled out its own version of America’s cash-for-clunkers program in 2009, offering subsidies to those who agreed to take their yellow-label vehicles off the road. Payments have totaled 170 million yuan ($27 million), Guan says. Hangzhou has retired more than 100,000 smog belchers since the program began.

If Xu were to hand over the keys to his 2008 Leopard, he’d be eligible for a payment of 10,500 yuan ($1,688). He’s not interested. A new truck would cost at least five times that. His current one never needs a repair, he says. And it wasn’t until last year’s emissions test that Xu got stuck with a yellow tag.

On this morning, Xu sets off with a load of water pipes that he’s supposed to deliver to a site 29 kilometers away. The pipes stick out of the back about a meter or so—a traffic violation—but he’s more worried about the yellow sticker. Driving through the haze at 9 a.m., Xu points the Leopard down a smoothly paved road along the Qiantang River, which separates the city’s older neighborhoods from a growing number of high-rises. Only the outline of the skyline is visible. One pollution index, which measures concentrations of certain airborne particulates, gives a reading of 87 micrograms per cubic meter—way above the 25-mcg level considered safe by the World Health Organization. Xu admits that air quality doesn’t really cross his mind much as he makes his deliveries and evades detection. “Doing what we do, that’s not something we care about,” he says.

Xu, 41, came to Hangzhou at the age of 17 and worked hauling bricks for 5 yuan a day. He ferried tourists around in a pedicab for six years and later delivered bottled gas, first on a bicycle and then on an electric bike, for more than a decade. At one point he toiled in a coal mine about 322 kilometers away, but he returned to the city after a co-worker died in an underground shaft, he says.

In 2009, Xu spent 3,000 yuan to learn how to drive a truck, then bought the Leopard and insurance for a total of 44,000 yuan. Today, he earns about 6,000 yuan a month—after the cost of diesel and traffic tickets. Last year, he logged five violations.

Hangzhou’s authorities are tightening enforcement, so Xu’s total could be higher this year. The city’s emissions department has set up the air-quality equivalent of a speed trap on a busy road just inside the zone where yellow-label vehicles are banned. A device adapted from a radar-enabled speed detector snaps pictures of cars’ license plates as they drive by. Emissions officers match the data against a list of all vehicles lacking green stickers—producing a list of possible scofflaws. After some further screening, the data are sent to the police.

Of the 926 cars screened that morning, 52 are potential violators. In a test-run last year, 10,600 yellow-label vehicles were found to be traveling in restricted zones, according to the emissions department. Officials report that drivers are wising up. “We’d see fewer yellow labels where we monitored, but then more showed up on a parallel road,” says Chen Yun, an officer in the emissions department. “It’s like a cat-and-mouse game.”

As he made his way through the city, Xu turned his thoughts to one tricky intersection, a corner frequented by police where many yellow-label drivers have been caught and fined 100 yuan. On some days, he might time his route to get there around lunchtime, when police are on their break. On others, he might avoid the crossing entirely and take a parallel route.

Xu’s luck holds this morning; the road is being repaired and there are no traffic cops in sight. His luck may run out soon enough, though. In recent months, Hangzhou’s police department has deployed 474 surveillance cameras, which have documented more than 4,000 violations so far this year.


    The bottom line: Some 13 percent of China’s cars and trucks account for more than 80 percent of particulate emissions.

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