As longtime readers know, we here at Grist are fascinated/horrified/baffled/whatevered by the environmental implications of China’s explosive economic growth. On that score, two reading recommendations.
First, Lester Brown at the Earth Policy Institute writes that China simply can’t develop the same way the U.S. did. Not a moral can’t, but a brute physical can’t — there just aren’t enough resources. On oil, coal, steel, and paper, the story is the same: If China consumed at U.S. per capita levels, it would consume more than the world currently produces. That takes a while to sink in, but it’s pretty incredible to contemplate. If, when China’s median wage reaches U.S. levels (projected to happen between 2030-2040), China’s per capita consumption of oil also reaches U.S. levels, China alone will be consuming more oil than the entire world produces today. With oil, that’s probably just not possible — oil production has either already peaked or will soon. With something like paper, it might be physically possible, but it would be ugly indeed. No more forests. Same with meat, or cars, or whatever. It’s just brute math.
And this is just putting it in terms of raw resources. If China actually travels down that road, they’ll hit an environmental wall before the resources themselves run out.
The good news is, apparently some folks in China realize this. Or at least one folk. Read this Spiegel interview with Pan Yue, Deputy Director of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency. It is, as Jamais notes, remarkably candid for an official of any country, but particularly China. Yue makes no bones about the fact that something has got to change in China’s development, and he’s not afraid to go to bat against powerful people in business and government to make it happen. He’s also startlingly frank about the fact that political reform is necessary to prevent eco-catastrophe. Seriously, it’s pretty short, so just go read it. But here’s one tasty excerpt:
This [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.
As Jamais also says, it’s worth tracking Yue’s political fortunes. If he is successful in government, it’s a good sign. If not, well …
Finally, please see this disclaimer.