This isn’t a surprise if you’ve been fortunate to visit the Far East. I say fortunate in that amongst the incessant construction growth, let’s not forget that China is still home to some of the most remarkable places on the planet. I’ve been awe-struck by such sights as those along the Yangtze River, the views from up high on the Great Wall and the serene beauty of the West Lake in Hangzhou. But amongst this beauty it’s hard not to be affected by the incessant smog that hovers over most of China’s most industrialised areas (including the capital Beijing and the heart of ‘tyre land’ in Qingdao or Shandong province).
It’s got so bad recently that Chinese authorities now authorise pilots to ‘fly blind’ in poor visibility to reduce the long delays caused by the smog. Fewer than one in five flights leaves on time from Beijing Capital Airport, according to travel industry data – the worst delay record of any international airport. Air pollution in Beijing regularly hits very high levels and atmospheric particles have been recorded at a staggering 755 micrograms per cubic litre – 38 times the level recommended by the World Health Organisation. Pollution levels can hover around 400 micrograms in Shanghai and Beijing, posing serious long-term risk of cancer and lung diseases to over 30 million inhabitants of these two sprawling cities.
But before we shake our heads and complain of global environmental catastrophe, we must also remember that China is going through industrial ‘adolescence’, just as every other major economy has done before. We in the West still want our cheap toys and our cheap tyres. To provide these to us China has had to suffer the consequences of this pollution. So far be it for us to judge or condemn the Chinese for it as many in the West do.
The Chinese government is trying to change and improve its environmental record though. For example, Beijing plans to replace its oil-burning buses with 14,000 new greener models powered by electricity by 2017 to help clear the smog. Coal imports in the first quarter of 2015 were down 42% on a year earlier as tougher anti-pollution rhetoric starts to bite. “Environment pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts,” said Chinese premier Li Keqiang at the opening of the National People’s Congress in March 2015. “We must fight it with all our might”.
In our business, China should be applauded in that it’s already planning its own tyre label to help with these regulatory efforts. Just as many mutter that Chinese tyre companies don’t take the European label too seriously, our Asian counterparts look set to unveil a set of label regulations possibly even tougher than those over here (albeit with some striking similarities). Like the EU scheme, labels will apply to car, 4×4 and truck tyres and will include the familiar criteria of wet grip; rolling resistance and noise. It also seems that the grading differentials will be identified by the same letters (A to G scale) and noise bars.
Unlike Europe, the Chinese tyre labels will likely start on a voluntary basis during 2016, so as to help develop general consumer education into the importance of labelling. This so-called ‘transitional phase’, will become mandatory quite soon after that. Like most things involving China, the authorities haven’t been hanging around. China’s set up its tyre labelling executive in July 2014 and initial programme details were already published by March 2015. Many of the larger Chinese tyre manufacturers already have (or are most definitely planning for) tyre test facilities to rival those in the West. Not only will wet grip and noise testing become quicker and more widespread, these investments also mean several factories will be accredited to homologate rolling resistance credentials in line with European scores.
Will all this mean that Shandong province will roll back the smog? Not just yet and there is a long way to go as China needs to provide places to live, work and eat. But hand in hand with emerging tyre brands’ march up the value curve, we should also look kindly on the country’s visible commitment to pursuing ‘greener’ policies. Of course, nothing will trump the nation’s pursuit of economic growth, but now with more than one eye on environmental concerns, Chinese tyre makers not only look to match their Western counterparts on fuel efficiency, wet grip and performance, but also in the future would you also see China becoming the leader in ‘green’ tyre technology? Well the Chinese don’t do anything by halves so it certainly is possible…..