China’s boom comes at a price

news: China’s boom comes at a price

Record economic growth has fuelled a massive demand for energy, making the country the largest oil consumer after America and the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal. There has also been a massive investment in hydropower, including the 25 billion dollar Three Gorges Dam project.

Statistics underline China’s extraordinary economic development. The world economy expanded last year by five per cent and China’s grew by a staggering nine per cent. But development inevitably brings problems.

A new report by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based environmental, non-profit organisation, comments that China’s consumption and production drive is threatening to deplete the world’s resources. “China is becoming the sucking force, taking raw materials from across the planet, because it alone doesn’t have the resources it needs to sustain its growth,” writes Lisa Mastny, the study’s project director.

Chinese cities are world’s most polluted

China’s boom is already straining its own natural resources to bursting point as millions leave the countryside for ballooning cities. As factories and car ownership have increased, air quality has plummeted. Sixteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China and the country is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the US.

China’s cities are an environmental disaster because infrastructure has not kept pace with rising numbers. Many cities face serious sanitation problems, with sewage and waste water going straight into rivers. Large cities, including Beijing, are smothered in smog and the old and the sick are often warned to stay indoors.

The government has introduced measures to counteract the problem, introducing strict fuel-economy standards for new cars and enacting a renewable energy law that sets ambitious targets for using wind and solar energy.

But China is now also one of the world’s largest consumers, straining already limited resources and increasing prices. China increased oil consumption by 11 per cent in 2004 and is now the second largest oil consumer after the United States.

Consumer demand “unsustainable”

Lisa Mastny says some 240 million Chinese people are now in the consumer class, buying the type of goods and services that most people in Western nations purchase. While that number is the same as in the US, it represents only 19 per cent of the total Chinese population. “The potential number of Chinese people who could become consumers in the future is enormous,” Mastny said. “Think about what that means in terms of availability of resources and the environmental impact.”

In the 80s, there were virtually no private cars in China. In 2003, there were 14 million. In 2015, China will have an estimated 150 million cars. “This is unsustainable,” Mastny believes. “We’re not blaming China. It’s just that if all the countries that are entering the consumer society try to emulate the patterns of the US and other countries, clearly there will be insufficient resources to go around.”

China also has a significant impact on the regional and global environment. The burning of coal is responsible for about half of the world’s sulphur dioxide emissions and causes acid rain throughout East Asia. “We even see huge brown clouds of sulphur making their way across the ocean,” Mastny says. “The haze in LA is not just from LA anymore.”

China’s economic ‘miracle’ will no doubt continue, but so, too, will the toll on the health of its citizens. Between 2001 and 2020, almost 600,000 people in China are expected to die prematurely every year due to urban air pollution. Perhaps the ‘enrichment’ of the country could lead to the ultimate ‘impoverishment’ of the people and the planet.