Seeing is believing: the future of electric vehicles in Nanjing

by Caroline Watson, C40's Transportation and Urban Planning Programme Director & Zero Emission Vehicles Network Manager

The IPCC's ‘Global Warming 1.5 degrees’ report published last month was a clear warning of the ambitious action needed to prevent the worst of climate change. A swift shift away from fossil fuels is needed, but as Christiana Figueres observes, ‘the determinants of whether we head for 2C or for 1.5C are mainly political; they are not technical or economic.’

This observation rang true when visiting China last week to deliver the annual C40 Zero Emission Vehicle network workshop. Bringing together delegates from 11 global cities to problem solve and work together to transition to zero emission vehicles.

The workshop was hosted by the city of Nanjing. Nanjing, in Eastern China, is about 300km up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, and was the national capital during part of the Ming Dynasty. The city has a population size equivalent to London.

On arrival at the airport, one of the first things we saw was a fleet of 80 EV car share vehicles, in which we were driven in one to our hotel. The car was a Chinese-made fully battery electric cross over vehicle (Roewe RX5). It was spacious, it was silent, it was smooth, it was zero tail pipe emission.

The city of Nanjing organized a visit to the local factory to see battery electric vans being made. In the UK there is a waiting list for new purchases of EVs with some fleets reporting a 9 month wait for an electric van. Vehicle manufacturers in Europe provide excuses for the delay in meeting demand, however, it seems to be less of a problem in China. It was impressive to see the Chinese models on the production line.

It was easy to spot electric cars or ‘new energy vehicles’ on the road in Nanjing, as all new energy vehicles have a green number plate (rather than blue for conventional vehicles). City workshop delegates noted this was a clever way not just to increase familiarity of EVs with the public, but a good method to inform and enforce policies promoting EVs. For example a traffic warden can tell immediately if a conventional vehicle is parked in an EV only parking bay based on the colour of the number plate. It can also be used for enforcing zero emission only access to city centres.

We travelled across Nanjing on one of the 3,667 new energy buses. There are more electric buses in Nanjing than across the whole of Europe combined. Throughout the workshop we heard from other Chinese cities such as Shenzhen that have transitioned their entire fleet of 16,000 buses to battery electric and are transitioning their 21,000 taxi fleet (they are only 4000 EVs away from 100%). There was a real sense that only in China can we see what’s truly possible in terms of scale of roll out of electric vehicles.

Despite the progress, Chinese cities acknowledged they face similar challenges to other cities around the world – such as how to ensure the electrical power is available to charge large fleets of electric vehicles, how to find sustainable business models to pay for charging infrastructure, how to reduce costs for electric commercial vehicles for business, and of course how to ensure the power generation is decarbonised. These are challenges the network will continue to work with member cities to overcome. However, Chinese cities are not letting these challenges hold them back, they are identifying where they can have most impact and starting with the conversion of bus and taxi fleets where the government has the most influence and powers.

Seeing is believing for cities, and delegates can travel back to their home cities to tell of what’s possible. We now know the urgency of the transition we need, and Chinese cities show us – in terms of shifting to electric vehicles - what is possible. All we need is the political will.