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Subsidizing Fuel Efficient Cars: Evidence from China's Automobile Industry


  • Chia-Wen Chen
  • Wei-Min Hu
  • Christopher R. Knittel


The Chinese automobile market is the largest in the world with annual sales exceeding 20 million vehicles. The tremendous growth in sales---over 200 percent from 2008 to 2015---and concerns over local air quality have prompted China's policy makers to incentivize the adoption of more fuel efficient vehicles. We examine the response of vehicle purchase behavior to China's largest national subsidy program for fuel efficient vehicles during 2010 and 2011. Using variation from the program's eligibility cutoffs, we find that the program boosted sales for subsidized vehicle models, but that the program also created a substitution effect within highly fuel efficient vehicles and most subsidies went to inframarginal consumers. This substitution effect greatly reduces the cost effectiveness of the program. We calculate that the average cost per ton of carbon dioxide saved is over 82 USD, well above the social cost of carbon used in U.S. regulatory filings. Using the framework in Boomhower and Davis (2014) and accounting for local pollution benefits, we show that ignoring the substitution effect would lead one to conclude that the program is welfare enhancing, whereas in fact the marginal cost of the program exceeds the marginal benefit by almost as much as 300 percent. We also show that the program was not well-targeted; the effect of the subsidy on sales of fuel efficient vehicles was smaller in areas where consumers were more likely to purchase fuel inefficient models or were lower educated.

Suggested Citation

  • Chia-Wen Chen & Wei-Min Hu & Christopher R. Knittel, 2017. "Subsidizing Fuel Efficient Cars: Evidence from China's Automobile Industry," NBER Working Papers 23045, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:23045
    Note: EEE IO

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Chen, Yuyu & Jin, Ginger Zhe & Kumar, Naresh & Shi, Guang, 2013. "The promise of Beijing: Evaluating the impact of the 2008 Olympic Games on air quality," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 66(3), pages 424-443.
    2. Christopher R. Knittel, 2012. "Reducing Petroleum Consumption from Transportation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 26(1), pages 93-118, Winter.
    3. Kenneth Gillingham & Richard G. Newell & Karen Palmer, 2009. "Energy Efficiency Economics and Policy," Annual Review of Resource Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 1(1), pages 597-620, September.
    4. Severin Borenstein & Lucas W. Davis, 2016. "The Distributional Effects of US Clean Energy Tax Credits," Tax Policy and the Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 30(1), pages 191-234.
    5. Atif Mian & Amir Sufi, 2012. "The Effects of Fiscal Stimulus: Evidence from the 2009 Cash for Clunkers Program," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 127(3), pages 1107-1142.
    6. Hunt Allcott & Michael Greenstone, 2012. "Is There an Energy Efficiency Gap?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 26(1), pages 3-28, Winter.
    7. Chandra, Ambarish & Gulati, Sumeet & Kandlikar, Milind, 2010. "Green drivers or free riders? An analysis of tax rebates for hybrid vehicles," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 60(2), pages 78-93, September.
    8. Koichiro Ito, 2015. "Asymmetric Incentives in Subsidies: Evidence from a Large-Scale Electricity Rebate Program," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 7(3), pages 209-237, August.
    9. Junji Xiao & Heng Ju, 2014. "Market Equilibrium and the Environmental Effects of Tax Adjustments in China's Automobile Industry," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 96(2), pages 306-317, May.
    10. Viard, V. Brian & Fu, Shihe, 2015. "The effect of Beijing's driving restrictions on pollution and economic activity," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 125(C), pages 98-115.
    11. Gallagher, Kelly Sims & Muehlegger, Erich, 2011. "Giving green to get green? Incentives and consumer adoption of hybrid vehicle technology," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 61(1), pages 1-15, January.
    12. Hunt Allcott & Christopher Knittel & Dmitry Taubinsky, 2015. "Tagging and Targeting of Energy Efficiency Subsidies," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 105(5), pages 187-191, May.
    13. Boomhower, Judson & Davis, Lucas W., 2014. "A credible approach for measuring inframarginal participation in energy efficiency programs," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 113(C), pages 67-79.
    14. Thomas Klier & Joshua Linn, 2015. "Using Taxes to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions Rates of New Passenger Vehicles: Evidence from France, Germany, and Sweden," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 7(1), pages 212-242, February.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • L5 - Industrial Organization - - Regulation and Industrial Policy
    • L91 - Industrial Organization - - Industry Studies: Transportation and Utilities - - - Transportation: General
    • Q4 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Energy
    • Q5 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics

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