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China's new fuel standard

Under pressure, Sinopec launches cleaner Beijing Six gasoline

After years of foot-dragging, China's Sinopec began supplying Beijing with its new lower-emission Beijing Six grade of petrol and diesel during February. The capital's residents should breathe a little more freely.

A breakthrough for China, the fuel is considered a world-class standard that draws on technology from the EU and US. "Beijing Six promises tremendous emission reductions for all types of conventional pollutants," notes the G20-funded consultancy, International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

The fuel is certainly a major advance on China Five, the current standard that is still being rolled out elsewhere in the country and is due to be available everywhere by the end of 2017. According to ICCT, Beijing Six could reduce PM2.5-caused air pollutants, or fine particular matter, by as much as 99%.

And, promises the city's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), emissions of nitrogen oxides will fall by 8-12%. There's also a lower content of olefins that contribute to photochemical smog.

Three refineries - Cangzhou, Qilu and Yanshan in suburban Beijing - will produce most of the fuel. The release of Beijing Six is a late coup for Sinopec. Having long argued that weak refining margins did not justify investment in the upgrades necessary to produce high-quality fuel, the company abruptly changed tack under political pressure. Just four years ago its refineries had not even introduced China Four, but president Xi Jinping's attack on corruption at the top of the nation's biggest refinery brought a new management and a new attitude.

As the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) pointed out in a study last year: "Since 2014 and the beginning of the corruption probes, Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corporation have tried to outdo each other in meeting targets early." Sinopec promised to deliver the new fuel to all of its 562 outlets in the Chinese capital by mid-February.

Desmogging the capital

Beijing's authorities have pushed for cleaner fuel for years because of the dangers to human health of smog caused by tailpipe emissions. It was, for instance, the first city in China to enforce the use of Beijing Five (as it was originally known). It is now the first to introduce Beijing Six.

As the OIES noted, Beijing is trailblazing a cleaner atmosphere that starts with cleaner-burning engines. The city has established its own ambitious targets for reducing average fuel consumption by 2020 - from the current 6.9 litres per 100 km to 5.0 litres. It's also in the vanguard of the development of electric vehicles (EVs). By 2020, the city's automobile manufacturers are expected to roll out 2m EVs a year.

The city's powerful EPA has also issued ambitious targets for gas-driven vehicles (NGVs). From 5.2m NGVs in 2015, the national fleet is expected to double to 10.5m by 2020.

China is under pressure from the G20 to clean up its atmosphere for humanitarian reasons and the introduction of Beijing Six is a big step forward. "[The fuel] could offer a sharp emissions decrease immediately after implementation," ICCT said in a detailed study ahead of its introduction.

Longer term, the consultancy estimates Beijing Six could knock 80% off existing black carbon emissions in the capital by 2030. It also predicts a 77% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions by the same date, a 64% fall in PM2.5, and an 88% drop in black carbon.

The fuel is a fundamental element of the 13th five-year plan, in which the reduction of pollution is a top priority. In this, the Ministry for Environmental Protection has become a ruthless enforcer of pollution controls backed up with increasingly tough penalties. According to the Oxford researchers, in 2015 China shut down 20,000 offending manufacturing plants and issued millions of dollars of fines to polluters.

The highest polluters on China's roads have been heavy-duty, diesel-powered trucks, many of them hauling coal. But diesel consumption is now in decline relative to gasoline. Use of the latter has been on the rise for more than a decade in direct correlation with the increase in automobile sales, and government statisticians expect gasoline consumption to catch up with diesel by 2020.

The OIES agrees: "Gasoline demand is intrinsically linked to driving and, with car sales continuing to grow strongly after a bout of moderation in 2015, [its use] is expected to maintain an upward momentum." Promising as the introduction of Beijing Six is for the capital, it will be years before it replaces China Five right across the nation.

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