THE CHINA FACTOR - Booming Economy Tests World's Vital Signs

Washington, D.C.— China has emerged as a global force that is driving consumption and production of almost everything through the roof, according to Vital Signs 2005, the latest publication from the Washington D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute. Growth in China helped boost incomes in many nations in 2004, but also drove up consumption of natural resources, increased the prices of raw materials, and pushed up pollution levels.

“2004 was a record-breaking year across the board,” said Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch. “The world economy expanded at a rate of five percent, pushing consumption and production of grain, meat, steel, and oil to new highs. Those physical indicators of growth serve to remind us that we have by no means freed ourselves from the material world and its persistent threats—among them global warming and ecological degradation—as we surf the information superhighway.”

Surging economic growth in China pushed world steel production up by one third in the last five years, exceeding the billion-ton threshold for the first time in 2004. China now produces 27 percent of the world’s steel—an essential input to its mushrooming industrial and urban infrastructure, as well as to the production of automobiles and other manufactured goods. In terms of scale, it is as if all of Europe, Russia, and North and South America were simultaneously to undertake a century’s worth of economic development in a few decades.

Since 1992, Vital Signs has tracked economic, social, and ecological trends from thousands of data sources to gauge the vitality of the planet and its people. Among the indicators highlighted in Vital Signs 2005:

  • World production of passenger cars jumped 4.5 percent in 2004—to 44 million—and 18 million SUVs and other light trucks were produced. Some 551 million passenger cars are now on the world’s roads, with a rapidly growing share of them in Asia. (p. 56)
  • Amid surging economic growth, a record 186 million people were still either without work or looking for a job in 2003. Global unemployment has risen to 6.2 percent, up from 5.6 percent in 1993. The lack of job opportunities has been linked to ongoing instability in places such as the Middle East, where 58 percent of the population is under the age of 25 and a quarter of working-age youth are unemployed. (pp. 102-103)
  • Both emissions and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are accelerating: U.S. energy-related emissions are the highest, and rose 16 percent between 1990 and 2003. China ranks second in its total emissions, up more than 47 percent since 1990. The average atmospheric CO2 concentration has risen 35 percent since the dawn of the industrial age, to 377.4 parts per million by volume in 2004. (p. 40)
  • Despite a growing global grain harvest and rising meat production and consumption, the number of hungry people around the world has increased for the first time since the 1970s, to 852 million daily. (p. 22) Estimates suggest that programs to cut world hunger in half would cost $24 billion annually. (p. 76)
  • Military spending also surged: every hour of every day, the world spends more than $100 million on soldiers, weapons, and ammunition. Following a steep decline in the mid-1980s, about $200 billion has flowed back into global military budgets since 1998. The four largest military spenders after the United States are Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and China. Using purchasing power parity rates, China, India, and Russia are the largest spenders after the United States. (p. 76)
  • The cumulative number of people infected with HIV/AIDS reached 78 million in 2004—nearly double the 1997 total. Big wild cards for the future are China and India, where two fifths of the world population lives and where HIV/AIDS surveillance efforts remain inadequate. (p. 68) Spending just $10 billion a year on a global HIV/AIDS program and $3 billion to control malaria in sub-Saharan Africa would save millions of lives. (p. 76)
  • At least 160,000 people die annually due to climate change, according to the World Health Organization, and there is growing evidence of direct links to observed ecological changes. (p. 40) Environmental disasters, including severe weather events, are to blame for a large number of the world’s refugees—30 million, by one estimate, with experts noting that environmental refugees could reach 50 million by 2010. (p. 50)
  • Less than one fifth of all countries are currently on target to reach the Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, to reduce child and maternal mortality and provide access to water and sanitation—while even fewer are on course to contain HIV, malaria, and other major diseases. (pp. 108-109)

“Trends illuminated in Vital Signs underscore the reality that current global funding priorities may be misdirected,” said Lisa Mastny, Vital Signs 2005 project director. “If just a portion of the money spent on defense globally were spent on development, we’d likely see a starkly different picture.”

Although rapidly industrializing nations with growing populations will increasingly leave their mark, industrialized countries with relatively small populations but sky-high consumption patterns remain a major threat to the global environment. Although the U.S. population increases by only about three million a year and India’s by nearly 16 million, for example, the United States has a significantly larger “ecological footprint,” with 15.7 million tons of U.S. carbon outputs released into the atmosphere each year compared to India’s 4.9 million tons. (p. 64)

There are also signs that individual investors and consumers are having a greater impact in areas where the economy and human concerns intersect. Investments made using socially responsible criteria exceeded $2.63 trillion worldwide in 2003, with the United States leading at $2.16 trillion. Over the past ten years, the Domini 400 Social Index—a portfolio based on the S&P 500 that screens out 250 unacceptable corporations and adds 150 socially responsible ones—has outperformed the S&P 500 by an average of 0.7 percent. (pp. 98-99)

Consumer dollars are aligning with responsible interests as well. Tourists increasingly support travel companies that are accountable to local communities and to the environment as a whole. For example, travellers can also now choose an company that will “offset” the carbon emissions produced by their flights: A person flying 2,886 kilometers round-trip from London to Rome could pay $17.23 to account for his or her share of carbon—about 0.5 tons—released during the flight. And a growing number of tourists are seeking alternatives to conventional “mass tourism,” with eco-friendly destinations garnering more interest among the 760 million international tourism arrivals last year. (pp. 100-101)

Although the economy remains robust, much more could be done to affect positive changes in the “vital signs” of our planet, according to Mastny. “There are many indications that poverty, environmental decline, and infectious disease are increasing, but the good news is that most of these trends are reversible.”

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For more information or to schedule interviews with Vital Signs 2005 Project Director Lisa Mastny or other authors, contact: Darcey Rakestraw at 202.452.1992 x517 or drakestraw@worldwatch.org.

NOTES TO EDITORS

Web-Based Press Resources on Vital Signs 2005: Starting on May 12, 2005 at 6:00 PM EDT (2200 GMT), the following will be available for press at www.worldwatch.org/pubs/vs/2005/.

  • Spokespersons List—A complete listing of all Vital Signs authors and their areas of expertise.
  • Vital Facts—Thought-provoking story ideas with facts, referenced back to the book’s chapters.
  • What You Can Do—Ideas, links, and resources for addressing the issues discussed in Vital Signs. 
  • Vital Signs 2005 Web Chat Series—View the complete schedule and introductions to each topic.
  • Vital Sign of the Week—Brief, compelling facts from individual Vital Signs chapters. Contact us to discuss adapting these for your news outlet. (Note: these will continue through December 2005.)