China's Claims on Earth's Resources Overtaking Those of the United States

12:00 noon EST
Wednesday, August 28, 1996


China's surging economy is placing growing pressure on the earth's natural systems and resources, says the Worldwatch Institute in "China's Challenge to the United States and to the Earth," an article that will appear in the September/October 1996 issue of World Watch magazine. In the consumption of grain, meat, fertilizer, steel, and coal, China has already passed the United States to lead the world. In its use of oil and emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, it is fast catching up.

Although the United States still leads the world in consumption of many resources, and is far ahead of China in per capita terms for most resources, China's economy has expanded by two thirds since 1990, and its use of resources is growing apace. Multiplying even modest consumption levels by a population of 1.2 billion people-- more than the United States, Europe, and Russia combined--could have a potentially decisive effect on the global environment.

"If China attempts to replicate the consumer economy pioneered in the United States, it will become clear that the U.S. economic model is not environmentally sustainable," noted the article's authors Lester R. Brown and Christopher Flavin. "If the average Chinese consumed as much grain and oil per person as an American does, prices of both commodities could go off the top of the charts. And carbon dioxide emissions would soar, leading to unprecedented climate instability."

Using purchasing power parity to measure output, China's 1995 GNP of just over $3 trillion exceeded Japan's $2.6 trillion and trailed only the U.S. output of $6.7 trillion. If the Chinese economy continues to double every eight years, the pace it has maintained since 1980, it will overtake that of the United States by 2010.

For several decades now, many have observed that the United States consumes a third or more of the earth's natural resources. But this is now changing. Already China's grain consumption is nearly double that of the United States, and consumption of red meat, mostly pork, is more than double that of the United States.

In steel production, a traditional indicator of industrialization, China has overtaken the United States, averaging 92 million tons of steel output per year in recent years compared with 91 million tons.

In computerization, perhaps a more relevant indicator for the information economy of today, there is no contest. The United States has 71 million computers compared with 1 million in China.

In transportation, the contrast is striking. In the production of bicycles, China led the United States by roughly 40 million to 7 million, while in automobiles, the United States leads by 6.6 million to 239,000. China is, however, planning to boost its automobile production dramatically over the next decade.

China's experience provides convincing evidence that the industrial development model that evolved in the West, and is perhaps best illustrated by the United States, will not work for the world as a whole. Carbon emissions in China are climbing rapidly, reaching 807 million tons in 1995 compared with 1.39 million tons in the United States. If China's rapidly rising use of coal continues, it will before long overtake the United States in carbon emissions, replacing it as the principal source of the greenhouse gases that are destabilizing the earth's climate.

U.S. oil consumption per person today is 25 times that in China. "If China were one day to use as much oil per person as the United States does," the authors note, "it would need 80 million barrels daily--more than the 60 million barrels daily the world now produces, or is ever projected to produce." Already, China has gone from exporting 500,000 barrels of oil in 1990 to importing 300,000 barrels of oil in 1995.

With pork consumption, China has closed the gap on the United States, consuming 30 kilograms per person annually compared with 31 kilograms by the average American. But its beef consumption of 4 kilograms per person lags far behind the 45 kilograms of the United States. "If China were to close the beef gap," write the authors, "its people would eat an additional 49 million tons each year. Produced in feedlots, this would take some 343 million tons of grain--the entire U.S. grain harvest."

Historically, as the pressure of population on the land intensified in Japan, its 120 million people turned to the oceans for animal protein, consuming 10 million tons of seafood in 1995. If China were to consume as much seafood per person, it would need 100 million tons of seafood, the entire world fish catch.

The extraordinary rise in affluence in China in recent years will force the entire world to rethink population policy as it becomes clear that the world cannot have both more people and U.S. resource consumption levels. Already land scarcity and water shortages in China are forcing China to import massive quantities of grain, boosting food prices worldwide.

China's modernization is forcing the entire world, including the United States, to rethink the development strategy based on fossil fuels. Most immediately, a world moving toward U.S. carbon emission levels would have an enormously destabilizing effect on climate. Over the longer term, there simply is not enough oil for even the Chinese to have a car in every garage, much less for the rest of the developing world to do so.

The alternative to fossil fuels is solar power, harnessed both directly in the form of solar/thermal power plants and photovoltaic cells and indirectly in the form of wind power. Fortunately for China, it has an abundance of both, including enough harnessable wind energy to easily satisfy its current electricity needs.

The western industrial model based on a throw-away economy with industries producing waste that pollute air and water will not be a viable one for China either. With most of China's 1.2 billion people squeezed into a thousand-mile strip on the eastern and southern coasts, an area roughly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, traditional industrial technologies would produce overwhelming amounts of pollution. Only a zero emissions industrial strategy, one designed so that one industry's waste becomes another's feedstock, is likely to be viable over the long term.

In summary, the authors said, "China, with its vast population, simply will not be able to follow for long any of the development paths blazed to date. The country that invented paper and gunpowder now has the opportunity to leapfrog the West and show how to build an environmentally sustainable economy. It will be forced to try and chart a new course. If China succeeds in charting an environmentally sustainable course, it could become a shining example for the rest of the world to admire and emulate. If it fails, we will all pay the price."

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