Sun, Feb 05, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Why the world needs a Plan B for China

If China and other developing nations were to match US levels of consumption, the consequences would be disastrous, but the technology exists for such a scenario to be avoided

By Lester Brown  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

For almost as long as I can remember, the experts have been saying that the US, with 5 percent of the world's population, consumes a third or more of the Earth's resources. That is no longer true.

China has now overtaken the US as the world's leading resource consumer. Among the basic commodities -- grain and meat in the food sector, oil and coal in the energy sector, and steel in the industrial sector -- China now consumes more of each of these than the US except for oil. It consumes nearly twice as much meat -- 67 million tonnes compared with 39 million tonnes in the US; and more than twice as much steel -- 258 million tonnes to 104 million.

The important questions now are: what if China's consumption per person of these resources reaches the current US level, and how long will it take for China's income per person to reach the US level?

If China's economy expands at 8 percent a year in the decades ahead, its income per person will reach the current US level in 2031. If at that point China's resource consumption per person were the same as that in the US today, its 1.45 billion people would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain harvest. China's paper consumption would be double the world's current production. Say goodbye to the world's forests.

If China were to have three cars for every four people -- as in the US -- it would have 1.1 billion cars. Worldwide today there are 800 million cars. To provide the roads and parking spaces to accommodate such a vast fleet, China would have to pave an area comparable to the land it now plants in rice -- 29 million hectares. It would use 99 million barrels of oil a day; the world currently produces only 84 million barrels daily, and may never produce much more.

The Western economic model -- the fossil fuel-based, motor car-centred, throwaway economy -- is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2031 is projected to have a population even larger than China's. Nor will it work for the 3 billion other people in developing countries who are also dreaming the "American dream."

In an increasingly integrated global economy, where all countries are competing for the same oil, grain and iron ore, the existing economic model will no longer work for industrial countries either.

We must implement Plan B now.

Sustaining our early 21st-century global civilization now depends on shifting to a renewable energy powered, re-use/recycle economy with a diversified transport system. Business as usual -- Plan A -- cannot take us where we want to go. It is time for Plan B, time to build a new economy.

Glimpses of the new economy can already be seen in the wind farms of western Europe, the solar rooftops of Japan, the fast-growing hybrid car fleet of the US, the reforested mountains of South Korea, and the bicycle-friendly streets of Amsterdam. Virtually everything we need to do to build an economy that will sustain economic progress is already being done in one or more countries.

In this economic restructuring, the biggest challenges will come in the energy economy as the world strives simultaneously to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on oil. Over the past five years, production of energy from oil and coal expanded by 2 percent and 3 percent a year, respectively, while wind and solar energy grew by some 30 percent a year.

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