Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel is an excellent read, and a great resource for environmentalists. Even better is his second book, Collapse. In it, he looks at how the collapse of civilizations has often been precipitated or exacerbated by environmental stress. One of his most stunning chapters is on China, and the vast ecological problems it faces thanks to its breakneck development.

How vast? Howzabout 10% of GDP?

China’s pollution problems are costing the country more than US$200 billion a year, a top official said yesterday as he called for stronger action to balance environmental protection against economic development.

Environmental damage is costing the government roughly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, estimated Zhu Guangyao, deputy chief of the State Environmental Protection Agency. China’s GDP for 2005 was US$2.26 trillion.

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This probably explains why China abandoned it’s attempt to develop a “green GDP” measurement earlier this year — if the Chinese submitted their economy to a full accounting, it would have almost certainly shown negative growth for the last several years.

This should put the lie to the idea that environmental protection comes at the cost of economic growth. In this case, environmental protection would almost certainly accelerate economic growth, even as measured by classical means. China’s problems are two-fold. The first is obviously scale: China is installing more electrical generation (almost entirely coal) every year than the U.S. will add in eight. The second problem is that Chinese resource use is incredibly inefficient. This is why Chinese usually respond to accusations that they’re polluting the world by crying for technology transfers — with better, cleaner technologies, the Chinese say, they’d be able to emit less pollution.

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The possible good news comes from the fact that Chinese leadership seems, to a certain extent, to be aware of the basic fact that China cannot develop along western lines. “Cannot” is not a term with any ambiguity.

As just one of many examples, if China’s 1.3 billion people were to consume oil at the rate the U.S. does, it would consume almost all of the world’s 85 million barrels a day. Adding that demand to current consumption would mean a global consumption of something like 150 million barrels a day, or 55 billion barrels a year — enough to consume all the commercially-exploitable bitumen in the Alberta tar sands in three years.

In response to these cold numbers, China has invested as much as a relatively poor country* can. China still hasn’t escaped the lure of large hydroelectric dams (they’ve just started filling the Three Gorges), but the Chinese market has been building huge numbers of solar heaters, not to mention a huge solar PV farm (this via Tyler Hamilton). As Al Gore notes in his film, China now has stricter air-quality standards for its automobiles than the U.S.

The question is whether China can move quickly enough. Some things weigh in China’s favour — particularly the lack of a wealthy, powerful corporate class wedded to the old paradigm (cough cough Republicans cough). The lack of any pre-existing infrastructure also makes new developments easier — it’s easier to sell the public on hydrogen, ethanol, or biodiesel if they haven’t grown up with gasoline. (In China, almost nobody’s old enough yet to have “grown up” with cars.) Finally, the multipolar nature of Chinese communism (not as monolithic as its Soviet variant, at least not since Mao’s death) allows local government a certain amount of leeway in experimenting with new technologies, as Wired described a while back.

Despite these pluses, China obviously faces an immense task. The good news, from a sustainability point of view, is that there is simply no other choice — China will either develop cleanly or choke on its own waste and kill the Chinese miracle in its infancy. This should be an excellent motivator — to quote Samuel Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

(*One of the most obnoxious things one occasionally hears is that the Chinese are “rich now.” I couldn’t believe I’d heard this right the first, second, or third time people said it to me. China’s per-capita GDP is still about 10% that of the U.S., hardly obscene wealth by any means. There are, of course, pockets of decadence in a highly-inequitable society. China’s poverty makes its environmental problems all the more serious.)