China Crisis: Spectacular Growth Now Biggest Threat to Global Environment
Date: Wednesday, October 19 2005
Independent.co.uk Online Edition
19 October 2005 07:14
Spectacular growth now biggest threat to environment
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Published: 19 October 2005
Western politicians queue up to sing its praises. Economists regard it with awe and delight. Other countries are desperate to imitate it. Yet there is another side to China's exploding, double-digit-growth miracle economy - it is turning into one of the greatest environmental threats the earth has ever faced.
An ominous sign of the danger is given in a groundbreaking report from Greenpeace, published today, which maintains that China is now by far the world's biggest driver of rainforest destruction. The report documents the vast deforestation driven by the soaring demands of China's enormous timber trade - the world's largest - as the country's headlong economic development sucks in ever-more amounts of the earth's natural resources.
Citing figures from the International Tropical Timber Organisation, the Greenpeace study says that nearly five out of every 10 tropical hardwood logs shipped from the world's threatened rainforests are now heading for China - more than to any other destination.
Yet deforestation is only one of the threats to the planet posed by an economy of 1.3 billion people that has now overtaken the United States as the world's leading consumer of four out of the five basic food, energy and industrial commodities - grain, meat, oil, coal and steel. China now lags behind the US only in consumption of oil - and it is rapidly catching up.
Because of their increasing reliance on coal-fired power stations to provide their energy, the Chinese are firmly on course to overtake the Americans as the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and thus become the biggest contributors to global warming and the destabilisation of the climate. If they remain uncontrolled, the growth of China's carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years will dwarf any cuts in CO2 that the rest of the world can make.
Even that, however, is not the ultimate threat from an economy which is growing at a rate the world has never seen before. According to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, the leading American environmental analyst, China's scarcely imaginable growth in the coming years means that the world's population will simply run up against the limits of the planet's natural resources sooner than anyone imagines.
If growth continues at 8 per cent a year, Mr Brown said, by 2031 China's population, likely to be 1.45 billion on current UN predictions, will have an income per person equivalent to that of the US today. He said: "China's grain consumption will then be two-thirds of the current grain consumption for the entire world. If it consumes oil at the same rate as the US today, the Chinese will be consuming 99 million barrels a day - and the whole world is currently producing 84 million barrels a day, and will probably not produce much more.
"If it consumes paper at the same rate we do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world's forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people - as the US does today - they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars, compared to the current world fleet of 800 million. They would have to pave over an area equivalent to the area they have planted with rice today, just to drive and park them."
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on October 20, 2005]