中国法律博客
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A Cynic’s View of the New Fuel Economy Standards
媒体来源: 中国法律博客

Keith Bradsher, auto industry guru in HK for the New York Times, gives us the good news:

Worried about heavy reliance on imported oil, Chinese officials have drafted automotive fuel economy standards that are even more stringent than those outlined by President Obama last week, Chinese experts with a detailed knowledge of the plans said on Wednesday.

Here are the specifics, helpfully compared to the recent U.S. standards:

[T]he average new car, minivan or sport utility vehicle in China already gets the equivalent of 35.8 miles a gallon this year based on the American measurement system of corporate averages and will be required to get 42.2 miles a gallon in 2015.

By comparison, President Obama announced last week that each automaker will be required to reach a corporate average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

The important question is not, however, to ask why China is able politically to raise its standards higher, in a shorter period of time, than the U.S. We already know the answer to that question: the power of the U.S. auto industry, which is significant even though it is functionally bankrupt.

In China, the auto industry has been blessed by the government as a core/favored industry that should be protected and encouraged — basically like the U.S. and other countries that have auto industries.

China has a more authoritarian system of government, and its auto industry is younger. This insulates the policy a bit from the influence of the industry, although I worry that within a few short years, the Chinese auto enterprises will be able to do a lot more to stop this sort of legislation. I'm glad the government is pushing this through now (while they can).

Anyway, as I said before, this is not the question to ask. No, the appropriate question is why neither country is pushing standards farther and faster. As a friend of mine, who actually knows something about cars, told me recently on this subject, "If the government was really serious, they would realize that current tech allows for 100 miles per gallon. The new standards are a joke."

Look, I have to breathe the air here in Beijing 24/7, so any movement on fuel efficiency is good news to my lungs. But yeah, neither the U.S. nor China is really doing much here. Given expected economic growth in China, one assumes that the benefits to the environment from the higher standards will be more than offset by new cars put on the road anyway. How depressing.

There is also an interesting protectionism issue with the new China standards:

The details of China’s new fuel economy standards may favor domestic automakers at the expense of multinationals, several auto industry officials said. That is because the new rules call for the steepest increases in fuel economy — as much as 26 percent — for midsize and compact cars, market segments where multinationals are strong. Subcompacts, a market where domestic automakers are stronger, will be required to increase their gas mileage by as little as 9 percent compared with the existing standards, which took effect on Jan. 1.

Large cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles will face percentage increases between those extremes. The Chinese government had already cracked down on these vehicles by setting very high gas mileage benchmarks for them as part of the existing rules.

Looking at this within a traditional GATT/national treatment framework, this sounds like a weak argument. Under certain circumstances, countries can discriminate like this for domestic policy reasons. Unless there is evidence of discrimatory intent here, or if the stats are so heavily weighted to domestic manufacturers that the violation of national treatment is self evident, I'm going to ignore this for the moment. Seems like environmental policy is a reasonable explanation for the differing standards. I would be curious to know, however, who the "several auto industry officials" are that Bradsher talked to. If these are executives from U.S. and European manufacturers, well, let's just say I'm very skeptical.

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