Inside China’s electric car capital, where rush hour is almost silent

Pensioners practice tai chi along the horseshoe-shaped river that carves through Liuzhou as cars and buses glide quietly past.

Rush hour is surprisingly peaceful, with misty mornings and little traffic noise, as many of the vehicles in this lush urban enclave are powered by electricity instead of petrol, including the public buses, taxis, and passenger vehicles.

Mini electric vehicles (EVs) are the most popular – two or four-seat cars half the size of a sedan and customised with stickers from Peppa Pig to Garfield. Even police drive these tiny cars, emblazoned with stickers of dimpled cartoon cops.

About one third of the cars sold in Liuzhou are electric, a figure that’s only growing. That’s more than five times the rest of China, making Liuzhou a leader in the world’s largest EV market.

This is the product of a long campaign by the Chinese state. China has aggressively pushed new energy vehicles to cut pollution and traffic at home, and Beijing wants to dominate industry globally as countries – such as the UK with its net-zero strategy – implement targets to phase out diesel and petrol vehicles.

In Liuzhou, residents have welcomed the environmental benefits in the city of four million once dominated by the polluting steel and chemical industries.

An EV drives past a street barber in
Liuzhou

Credit: Gilles Sabrie for The Daily Telegraph

“The air is definitely so much cleaner,” said Wei Haiyun, 39, a driver for a ride-hailing platform who bought an EV two months ago and now saves about 4,000 yuan (£450) a month on petrol. The city began its push for EVs in 2017 and the rewards are obvious.

Water quality is also excellent in the river, top-ranked last year by the ministry of ecology and environment. It’s home to snails used in a popular noodle soup, and also where residents say some wells are pure enough to drink from.

This is no small feat for China, which is responsible for one-third of global carbon emissions and known for cities choked with smog.

In Beijing, the air quality has been exceptionally poor as international climate talks kicked off at Cop26 in Glasgow, easily ten times worse than in Liuzhou and other cities, such as London.

Chinese polution health impact levels

Liuzhou may offer a glimpse of the future, with greener transport to moderate the impact of climate change and less smog to boot.

Electric vehicles do “offer an opportunity to substantially lower emissions from greenhouse gases,” said Anders Hammer Strømman, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“We don’t have that many cards on our hands to mitigate climate change, and this is one of the ones that we can’t screw up,” he said. “But there are two important caveats… we need both the production and operation of the vehicles to be done in as green a manner as possible.”

That means that getting consumer buy-in with EVs, as local authorities did in Liuzhou with free parking and purchase subsidies, is just one step of a broader transformation that will be needed.

One of the biggest challenges with electric vehicles is how they’re powered, said Barbara Finamore, a senior visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

“The largest component of the carbon footprint of an EV is the battery production – the mining, refining, transport of critical materials,” she said.

“The other component is what type of electricity is powering the vehicle.”

Electricity might be ubiquitous, but how it’s generated often poses environmental concerns.

Most electricity in China still comes from coal-fired power plants, which means EVs are charged by a heavily-polluting source, although there are plans to use more renewable energy.

Electric vehicles in Poland and Kosovo, for instance, generate more carbon emissions than petrol or diesel models because a substantial amount of electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels.

The UK will need approximately seven gigfactories by 2040 to keep up with demand

Meanwhile in Norway, which has the most EVs per capita, most electricity comes from hydropower.

In the UK, gas accounts for roughly 36 per cent of electricity generation, followed by wind and solar at 28 per cent.

Battery technology also needs to evolve. For now, EV batteries rely on metals like cobalt, manganese, and nickel, which are mined primarily in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, and extracted via a process that can be environmentally degrading.

The industry itself has been plagued with human rights concerns, including child labour and poor working conditions. Amnesty International says children as young as seven work 12-hour days in the DRC’s cobalt mines for $1 per day.

Child miner in DRC

Credit: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

Companies are working on alternatives by using other materials, which could make EVs more affordable as well as more ethically sourced.

“Whoever can come up with alternative battery technology that relies less on critical materials and brings the price down in an environmentally sensitive way are going to hit a gold mine,” said Ms Finamore.

Governments, including the UK and US, are also investing billions in battery research given geopolitical concerns over China’s dominance in the global supply chain.

China has locked up access to much of the world’s key battery ingredients, buying up cobalt mines in Africa for decades.

Estimates put China in control of 80 per cent of the world’s raw material refining and 60 per cent of component manufacturing.

China is also home to CATL, the world’s largest EV battery maker, which supplies companies including Tesla, its biggest customer, and Volkswagen.

A supply chain disruption could be disastrous for other nations.

China’s strength in batteries supports its ambitions to become the EV factory for the world, exporting parts and vehicles, and Europe is its main market.

Elon Musk at a Tesla factory launch in Shanghai in Jan 2020

Credit: REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo/File Photo

Last year, 64 per cent, or roughly 65,400 units, of China’s new energy vehicle exports went to just six European countries, topped by Belgium and the UK, according to the commerce ministry in Beijing.

“There is a risk that China will flood the foreign markets with [its] EV brands,” said Tu Le, founder and managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a consultancy in Beijing.

Government support for the EV sector led to an explosion. China has more than 321,000 businesses related to new energy vehicles as of August, prompting regulators to consider engineering industry consolidation.

Subsidies provided a backstop, giving companies confidence to dive into something new. Even the likes of tech firm Xiaomi and embattled property developer Evergrande sank money into EVs.

China’s decision to allow Tesla to build a factory in 2018 during its trade war with the US injected a healthy dose of competition and pushed the industry forwards.

Tesla cars are increasingly common in wealthy Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, though less so in cities like Liuzhou.

Demand grew significantly in China as more options appeared on the market. Industry analysts say that legacy automakers, many of which had expected EV adoption to happen on a longer timeline, risk being left behind as Chinese companies gobble up market business at home and abroad.

So “when you talk about the supply chain, there’s always the short term…where we’re going to buy from China,” said Mr Le. 

It’s already happening. The world’s largest EV maker, Chinese firm BYD, in partnership with British bus builder Alexander Dennis, has supplied hundreds of double-decker electric buses. BYD accounts for 60 per cent of the UK electric bus market, and more are expected to hit the streets.

In September, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced that all new city buses will be zero-emissions. Six hundred such vehicles are on the road with a further 350 on order, and London plans to transition its entire fleet of 9,000 by 2034. Seventy per cent of those are from the BYD partnership, according to Transport for London.

London electric bus ambitions

Switching to battery-powered buses is expected to help the Government reach its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Shanghai-based Nio launched one of its models in Norway in September. And Tesla, on top of selling wheels in China, is exporting EVs made at its Shanghai factory to Europe.

However, it’s still unclear whether Chinese firms with first-mover advantage will be able to maintain momentum.

“Foreign countries might not want to buy Chinese-made electric vehicles if that’s going to compromise their data privacy,” said Ms Finamore.

Under Chinese law, any company can be compelled by the government to hand over data and information in the name of national security – one of the reasons telecoms firm Huawei has come under fire in the UK, US and elsewhere.

Governments may be wary of purchasing Chinese-made vehicles for fleets, such as police patrol cars, given these security concerns.

Electric mobility: Europe races ahead

Europe and the US are moving “to make sure the supply chain is not reliant on everything coming from Asia,” said Sandy Fitzpatrick, VP at Canalys, a market research firm.

This will not happen quickly, and it also remains to be seen how international consumers will view Chinese EV brands – ‘made in China’ has long been linked to counterfeit and cheap goods rather than innovative and high-quality products.

Succeeding in “western Europe is going to be much more difficult for Chinese brands; it’s a much tougher hill to summit, but they will try,” said Bill Russo, founder and CEO of Automobility, an advisory firm in Shanghai.

Firms are making moves to boost their chances globally, even modifying branding. One firm, Xiaopeng, goes by XPeng in English and uses a sleek “X” logo on its cars.

But it’s not just about grabbing market share elsewhere. Presence abroad, however small, lets companies “sell the idea to the Chinese consumer that they are international companies,” possibly making offerings more attractive, said Mr Russo.

Experts say, however, that the most planet-friendly option would be to manufacture and sell electric vehicles locally. “It would absolutely be better for our global carbon footprint,” said Ms Finamore.

Moving around assembly parts or finished vehicles via air, container ships and heavy trucks is itself a polluting endeavour.

In Liuzhou, most EVs sold are indeed manufactured locally in the city, which is a source of pride among residents.

Credit: Gilles Sabrie for The Daily Telegraph

In 2017, the city launched a free, 10-month test-drive campaign, encouraging drivers to test the now-popular mini-EVs. Many that did ended up buying them.

Feedback from the programme also allowed the manufacturer, which is a joint venture between GM, Chinese state automaker SAIC and local firm Guangxi Automobile, to better tailor its offering to fit residents’ driving habits.

Today, the mini-EVs can be spotted everywhere; charging from people’s homes and at stations, and zooming down roads next to giant trucks and pedestrians.

“China has been one of the fastest adopters of EVs,” said Ms Fitzpatrick, who attributes their popularity to the availability of smaller, inexpensive models.  

The cars are relatively affordable, priced from £5,000 to £10,000. And they’ve allowed authorities to make efficient use of valuable urban space as they can be parked on the edges of pavements without blocking off pedestrians.

On one afternoon, more than one-third of the 100 or so vehicles that whizzed past the Telegraph in just three minutes were powered by electricity. They were easily spotted with their bright green plates, rather than the usual blue.

In the first half of this year, 2.55 million electric vehicles were sold around the world. China accounted for 47 per cent of those sales, followed by Europe at 40 per cent and the US at three per cent, according to Canalys.

Adverts for EVs are everywhere in Liuzhou, including on buses and trains, which themselves run on electricity. Billboards advertising flats lure new homeowners with the prospect of a free mini-EV with every property purchase.

In the long term, mitigating climate change will take much more than simply switching to greener modes of transport.

Experts say global mobility itself – how we all move around – needs an overhaul. In cities, that likely means a mix of electric vehicles and more use of public transport, which itself needs to be upgraded and more efficient.

“Perhaps we don’t have to commute every day to the office,” said Mr Strømman.

Small EVs, as seen in Liuzhou, could also play a crucial role in daily urban transport.

Liao Jun is a fan of his EV

Credit: Gilles Sabrie for The Daily Telegraph

Liao Jun, 39, folds his large frame daily into the dark red mini-EV he shares with his girlfriend to get to work as manager of an electric vehicle charging station.

A full charge costs 20 yuan (£2.30) given electricity subsidies and gives him 125 miles, plenty for a week of commuting.

“Basically we never drive petrol cars any more; parking and fuel can be expensive,” he said. Finding enough space to park was always time-consuming, too.

By comparison, his mini-car is “so convenient,” he said. “Plus, parking is free.”

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