China's Boom Is Bust for Global Environment, Study Warns

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 16, 2005

China's spectacular economic boom may be inflicting a terrible toll on the global environment, a new study warns.

According to Vital Signs 2005—a new report by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental nonprofit—China is now driving the consumption and production of almost everything, threatening to deplete the world's resources.

"China is becoming the sucking force, taking raw materials from across the planet, because it alone doesn't have the resources it needs to sustain its growth," said Lisa Mastny, the project director of the new study.

It remains to be see what long-term effects the Chinese boom will have on the world's raw materials. But it is clear that China's own natural resources—its air, land, and water—are already suffering terribly.

China is in the middle of the largest rural migration in human history, with millions of its people leaving for mushrooming cities. With factories multiplying and car ownership surging, the cities' air quality has plummeted.

Sixteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. The country is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the United States.

"China's economic boom is dramatically changing [its] environmental landscape—polluting the water and air, desertifying the land, and diminishing the country's natural resources at terrifying rates," said Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asia Studies at the New York City-based Council of Foreign Relations.

But there is some hope, experts say. Recognizing the escalating costs of pollution, the Chinese government has, for example, introduced strict fuel-economy standards for new cars. It has also enacted a renewable-energy law that sets ambitious targets for using wind and solar energy (see sidebar).

Consumer Nation

The world economy expanded in 2004 at a rate of 5 percent. According to the report, China's economy grew by a staggering 9 percent.

Economic reforms have undoubtedly benefited hundreds of millions of Chinese people, providing them with a better standard of life. The boom has also turned China into a huge market for companies worldwide.

China is still a manufacturing giant. It now produces 27 percent of the world's steel, an essential input in industrial infrastructure. Steel production has increased by one-third in the last five years.

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