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 annual pulse-taking from the venerable Worldwatch Institute, published today.
This isn’t exactly news. For years, hand-wringing “what-if” scenarios have considered the environmental impacts of a billion-plus Chinese aspiring to Americans’ levels of consumption. But, as Vital Signs shows, those scenarios are no longer hypothetical. Exploding growth in China is helping to boost the global economy, but it also is driving up consumption of natural resources, increasing prices of essential raw materials, and pushing up pollution levels around the world.
Example: China’s building boom has helped push world steel production up by a third over the last five years. China now produces just over a fourth of the world’s steel -- an essential input for its mushrooming industrial and urban infrastructure, as well as for the production of cars and other goods, and is a voracious buyer of steel from other countries, leading to shortages and price spikes in some areas.
“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,” says Worldwatch.
Steel is just the beginning. China is using its massive foreign exchange earnings from being the world’s low-cost manufacturer of choice -- producing goods for the Gaps, Walmarts, and Reeboks of the world -- to buy up other resources from around the globe. The global grain harvest shot up by 8% to over 2 billion tons last year, driven in part by China’s rising consumption and changing diets. Production of meat and fish -- the latter increasingly derived from environmentally problematic fish farms -- also hit new highs. One result is that grain reserves are at historically low levels, leaving the world vulnerable to higher prices should this year’s harvest be hurt by adverse weather, says Worldwatch.
And then there’s oil. “World oil markets have already entered their most turbulent period in more than two decades,” writes Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin:
“From Africa to South America, Chinese and Indian companies are now competing with American and European firms for access to the few remaining frontiers of the world oil industry. This struggle for supplies is likely to intensify in the next few years. The biggest losers will be countries that have virtually no impact on the world oil market -- poor oil-importing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”
In 2003, China passed Japan to become the world's second largest petroleum consumer. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030 China will import 10 million barrels per day, equal to the current U.S. total and almost twice Japan's current level. Where all that oil will come from -- and how much it will cost -- is anybody’s guess.
It’s not simply a question of energy supply. It’s also a matter of global security. According to a recent report by the Houston Chronicle, China's willingness to cut oil deals with nasty regimes already has begun undermining American policy priorities:
”Beijing shuns the spot oil market in favor of long-term contracts and investments in producer countries. When it does so in pariah states that Washington is trying to isolate, China's actions contravene efforts to stop nuclear proliferation and promote human rights. And in oil-exporting capitals where Washington's policies are unpopular, Beijing may be supplanting the United States as customer-of-choice.”
The good news is that China’s surging demand for new, cleaner energy technologies -- wind, solar, and biofuels derived from crops and agricultural waste -- will help power the growth of renewable energy.
Indeed, China (as well as India) is well positioned to claim the leadership role in renewables now held by Europe and Japan (and, poignantly, not by the U.S.). China’s just-adopted energy law, which takes affect next January, will accelerate its already fast-growing renewables sector. China has huge potential for solar, wave, tidal, and biomass power and -- coupled with energy efficiency -- could meet all of its energy needs solely from renewables, say experts.
Even still, says Flavin, “recent developments suggest that the world economy will be coping with the downsides of its voracious material appetite for decades to come.” And even if predictions about China’s clean-energy revolution come to pass, it could be decades before it puts a dent in the currently rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are altering the world’s ecological systems.
It’s not just China, of course, or even developing countries. Although rapidly developing 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,” says Worldwatch. For example, although the U.S. population is only about one-fourth the size of India’s, Americans have a much larger ecological footprint, with 15.7 million tons of U.S. carbon outputs released into the atmosphere, more than three times India’s 4.9 million tons.
The vital signs aren’t all bad. One positive indicator, says Worldwatch, is that the world’s tourists increasingly are supporting travel companies that are accountable to local communities and the environment. For example, travelers can also now choose an airline that will offset the carbon emissions produced by their flights: A person flying round-trip between London and Rome can pay $17.23 to account for her share of carbon -- about a half a ton’s worth -- released during the flight from the burning of jet fuel. And a growing number of tourists are seeking alternatives to conventional “mass tourism,” with eco-friendly destinations garnering increasing interest among the 760 million international tourism arrivals last year.
Presumably, several million of them will be going to China each year. And looking to live the good life in a country increasingly able to provide it.