China’s growth sums just don’t add up for the planet


China’s 1.3 billion (and counting) citizens are poised to transform the global landscape dramatically, both economically and ecologically.

Today, the United States dominates the world stage with military spending of over $400 billion a year, a GDP topping $11 trillion annually, and carbon dioxide emissions that far surpass those of any other nation on Earth. But all this is going to change.

The U.S. will not relinquish its military dominance willingly, so its spending on armaments will stay on top for decades to come, since, in 2004, China spent a comparatively paltry $56 billion on its military and Japan a mere $45 billion.

Nevertheless, by the middle of this century, the U.S. economy will slip into second place if China’s burgeoning growth continues. And even before China takes the lead economically, it will replace the U.S. as the world’s leading producer of carbon dioxide gas, the primary cause of global climate change.

With more than a billion Chinese eager to acquire the trappings of a Western lifestyle — such as more meat, cars, air conditioners refrigerators and the like — nations worldwide are already repositioning themselves to feed China’s growing appetite for natural resources and finished goods.

Economists see this demand in rosy terms, but there is a downside. Our planet is simply unable to sustain billions more humans consuming at the same rate as today’s Americans and Japanese.

Globally, our oceans are already overfished, farmland is being lost to urban sprawl, overgrazed grasslands are turning to deserts and groundwater supplies are drying up. In short, we are nearing (and some say we have surpassed) the limits of Earth’s capacity to support human civilization.

Now that the Chinese are rightfully demanding seats at this banquet of apparent plenty — just when the planet is on the verge of maximum yield — how can Earth provide America-like lifestyles for China’s billion-plus inhabitants?

And what about India’s billion more?

Today, per capita GNP in the U.S. and Japan sits at about $38,000 annually, while China’s per capita GNP is a mere $1,000. Nevertheless, China — which is home to more than 20 percent of the world’s people — is intent on closing this gap.

China’s economy is surging at a rate of over 9 percent annually. If growth continues at about 8 percent a year, its economy could double every nine years. As a result, by 2031, income per person for China’s projected population of 1.45 billion would reach $38,000, according to Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington D.C.

If the Chinese reach this income level in 2031, and choose to consume grain at the same annual rate as Americans on this income level do today, then grain consumption per person in China would climb from 291 kg today to the 935 kg needed to sustain a U.S.-style diet rich in meat, milk and eggs. Put another way, in 2031, China would consume 1,352 million tons of grain — far above the 382 million tons used in 2004.

In a March 9 policy paper titled “Learning from China: Why the Western Economic Model Will not Work for the World,” Brown explains in a sobering sentence that bears re-reading — “this is equal to two-thirds of the entire 2004 world grain harvest of just over 2 billion tons.”

Assuming the Chinese follow the voracious lead of their American brethren, where will this grain come from, and what will everyone else eat?

And it’s not just about grain. What about other foods, energy sources and countless other consumables?

According to Brown, writing in another paper released in February, China is already becoming the world’s leading consumer of resources. “Among the five basic food, energy and industrial commodities — grain and meat, oil and coal, and steel — consumption in China has already eclipsed that of the U.S. in all but oil,” he says.

In that paper, titled “China Replacing the United States as World’s Leading Consumer” (www.earth-policy.org), Brown also reports that, in 2004, China consumed 382 million tons of grain, compared with the U.S. consumption of 278 million tons; Chinese ate 63 million tons of meat, compared to the 37 million tons eaten in America; and, China’s use of nitrates, phosphates and potash for fertilizer was more than twice the 19.2 million tons that were used in the U.S.

In 2003, China also used more than twice as much steel as the U.S. (258 million tons vs. 104 million tons), and its annual consumption of coal was 25 percent more than in the U.S. (800 million tons versus 574 million tons). Only in oil does the U.S. still hold the lead, with consumption triple that of China’s — 20.4 million barrels per day to 6.5 million barrels a day in 2004, according to Brown.

But China’s consumption is soaring.

“While oil use in the U.S. expanded by only 15 percent from 1994 to 2004, use in China more than doubled,” says Brown. “Having recently eclipsed Japan as an oil consumer, China is now second only to the U.S.”

Of course, burning more coal and oil adds to the already serious problem of rising carbon dioxide emissions. In 2002, the Chinese only emitted 2.7 metric tons per capita, a fraction of the 9.4 metric tons released per capita by the Japanese, or of the 20.1 metric tons per capita released by Americans.

But human activities worldwide now emit more than 23 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, and China’s blazing economy depends on coal and oil.

None of this is China’s fault. “The point of this exercise of projections is not to blame China for consuming so much,” Brown stresses. “But rather to learn what happens when a large segment of humanity moves quickly up the global economic ladder. What we learn is that the economic model that evolved in the West — the fossil fuel-based, auto-centered, throwaway economy — will not work for China, simply because there are not enough resources.”

Nor will it work for the 3 to 4 billion others in the developing world who still want a piece of American pie — even as it is being reduced to crumbs.