China’s economic boom unsustainable as eco-costs rise

Channel News Asia

22 March 2005
BEIJING : China’s booming economic miracle is
expanding at a highly unsustainable rate, creating
tremendous pressures on resources while bankrupting
the environment, a leading environmentalist warned.
“I have a feeling we are on the edge of big changes.
It is still difficult to see how this will develop but
we are clearly pushing the envelope in so many ways
and all at the same time,” Lester Brown, the US-based
director of the Earth Policy Institute, told AFP.
“It could be runaway oil prices, climate change, there
are so many things that can happen, food stocks could
fall, grain prices could rise, water scarcities
Brown was in Beijing for a series of lectures
outlining grave consequences to the earth’s ecology
should China remain on a developmental path that seeks
to emulate consumption patterns in the United States.
He will also receive an honorary degree from the China
Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most prestigious
scientific research body.
“I sense the Chinese leadership knows how serious the
problems are but with the overriding concerns for
growth and job creation, they can’t give the
environment the attention it deserves,” Brown said.
“They have tremendous problems with deforestation and
desertification. Water tables are falling throughout
the country.
“At some point things will break down. It’s hard to
say when, it could be five, 10 years, some changes are
already happening.”
China’s growth over the last 26 years since economic
liberalisation has been “extraordinary,” Brown said,
but the sooner Beijing recognizes that its existing
economic model cannot sustain economic progress, the
better it would be for the entire world.
“We are consuming beyond the sustainable yield of the
earth’s natural systems,” he said.
“As we overcut, overplow, overpump, overgraze, and
overfish, we are consuming not only the interest from
our natural endowment, we are devouring the endowment
“In ecology, as in economics, this leads to
bankruptcy,” Brown said.
China has already replaced the United States as the
world’s leading consumer of most basic commodities
such as grain, coal, and steel.
With an annual average urban income of 5,300 dollars,
Chinese consumers are poised to reach US income levels
by 2031 based on an average annual growth rate of 8.0
percent, said Brown.
China has averaged about 9.5 percent annual growth
over the last two decades.
If the Chinese consume resources in 2031 as
voraciously as Americans do now, their grain
consumption would be two thirds of current world
production and oil use of 99 million barrels a day
would exceed current world output of 79 million
barrels per day, Brown warned.
In addition, China would consume more steel than the
entire Western industrialized world does today and its
meat consumption would be roughly four fifths of
current world meat production.
“The point of this exercise of projections is not to
blame China for consuming so much, but rather to learn
what happens when a large segment of humanity moves
quickly up the global economic ladder,” he said.
“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.”
Brown said the world needed to urgently turn to “plan
B” before the geopolitics of oil, grain, and raw
material scarcity led to political conflict and social
The new plan, he said, would be based not on fossil
fuels but by harnessing renewable sources of energy,
including wind power, hydropower, geothermal energy,
solar cells, solar thermal power plants, and biofuels.

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