As sport utility vehicles (SUVs) become increasingly unpopular in Europe and the United States, the gas-guzzling wagons are capturing the attention of an expanding class of Chinese consumers: the new rich. The rapid increase in SUV sales in China is the result of a strong push by international automakers to capitalize on the huge Chinese market, using captivating ads to stimulate an individualistic SUV culture. This trend, if left unchecked, will likely only compound the already serious air-quality problems in a country beleaguered by mounting urban air pollution.
China's auto industry has expanded at double-digit annual growth rates in recent years, thanks in part to cheap fuel prices that remain under tight government control. Against this background, SUVs fared particularly well in 2007. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, more than 370,000 of the vehicles were sold in China last year, a 58 percent increase over 2006. The bulk of the sales concentrated on mid- and high-end models, which are expected to dominate the market in 2008.
Imports of luxury SUVs in 2007 hit record levels, with popular brands ranging from BMW and Porsche to Lexus, Cadillac, and Volvo. All major international automakers are accelerating their entry into China's burgeoning SUV market, with General Motors, Kia, and Buick also planning to introduce models in the country in the near term.
SUV buyers comprise a relatively small group of China's new rich, who represent the top of the nation's income pyramid. While personal cars are still beyond the reach of the average Chinese citizen, for the country's most affluent, luxury SUVs are becoming their second or third vehicle. Price and cost are not a limitation, and what buyers look for in the chunky and sturdy vehicles is the image the SUVs convey, which caters to their aspirations for novelty and individualism.
Ads featuring the tough and agile vehicles maneuvering over rough terrain-long common in the Western media-are now instilling in Chinese customers the message of an SUV culture generated in the West. By appealing to the suppressed side of human nature, the ads convey to buyers a sense of freedom and individualism, bringing "wildness" to urban centers while enabling dominance on the road.
China's SUV buyers gain self-satisfaction from sitting high behind the wheel in a roomy compartment, distinct from the rest of society in wealth, status, and perceived taste. Yet these drivers are neglecting the common ground they share with other urban dwellers: foul air. Chinese cities already suffer from serious industrial air pollution from coal burning, and auto emissions have become a major pollution source in recent years.
According to a recent Worldwatch Institute report, only 1 percent of the 577 million urban Chinese breathe air that meets the European Union's air-quality standards. An unpublished World Bank study in 2007 concluded that poor air quality is causing between 350,000 and 400,000 premature deaths in China each year. SUVs, known for their high emissions relative to standard vehicles, are contributing a disproportional share of that pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
In an era when all people are threatened by a warming planet, concerned citizens around the world are making greener choices. Even in the United States, where the SUV culture first emerged, green consumption has become a national trend. Ironically, China's new SUV owners, who thrive on emulating Western lifestyles and the latest fashions, seem to have missed the fact that the gas-guzzling vehicles are no longer "in."
Yingling Liu is manager of the China Program at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-D.C. based environmental research organization.