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China's Upward Mobility Strains World Resources

WASHINGTON, Mar 9 (IPS) - If per capita income in China grows at eight percent per year -- a reduction from the red-hot pace of 9.5 percent it has grown since 1978 -- it will overtake the current per capita U.S. income in just over 25 years, according to the latest analysis by the Earth Policy Institute (EPI).

And if those increased incomes translate into the kind of lifestyle currently enjoyed by most U.S. citizens, Chinese demands will overwhelm what the planet can provide it, according to the analysis, ”Learning from China: Why the Western Economic Model Will Not Work for the World”.

While geo-politicians worry whether China will integrate itself into the current western-dominated international system, Lester Brown, EPI's founder, is far more worried about the impact of a wealthy China on the Earth's diminishing resource base.

”If it does not work for China,” he notes, ”it will not work for India, which has an economy growing at 7 percent per year and a population projected to surpass China's by 2030.”

China's demands on the basic raw materials to feed its galloping economy have become increasingly clear here in just the past few months as successive trade delegations, including one headed by President Hu Jintao himself, have made their way to Latin America to sign long-term supply contracts for the production of commodities from agriculture to mining.

In a 12-day, four-country trip in November, Hu announced more than 30 billion dollars in new Chinese investments in Latin America in basic industries and infrastructure designed to facilitate the export of raw materials from the region across the Pacific over the next generation.

China's economic boom is the biggest single factor in the steady rise of commodity prices worldwide over the past years, a factor that, coupled with its investments and shrewd diplomacy, is buying it considerable goodwill in much of the developing world, but especially in South and Southeast Asia, as well as Latin America.

Indeed, a survey of 22 countries commissioned by BBC and released earlier this week found that China is now viewed as playing a significantly more positive role in the world than either the United States or Russia and that majorities or significant pluralities in 17 of the countries were particularly positive about China's growing economic clout.

The poll, of nearly 23,000 people, was conducted by GlobeScan and the University of Maryland's Programme on International Policy Attitudes in late 2004.

But Brown, a founder and former director of the Worldwatch Institute who has long warned about limits to the Earth's ability to sustain wealthy lifestyles, at least as they exist in the United States, now argues that, to the extent China's growth is aimed at replicating such lifestyles, its efforts will ultimately prove futile.

Chinese consumption of each of the ”five basic commodities used in the food, energy, and industrial economies -- namely, grain and meat, coal and oil, and steel -- already has overtaken that of the United States in all but oil,” he writes. ”Now the question is, What if consumption per person of these resources in China one day reaches the current U.S. level?”

China's current per capita income is estimated at about 5,300 dollars a year, only about 14 percent of U.S. per capita annual income of about 38,000 dollars. If its economy's annual growth rate slowed to eight percent per year, China would reach the current U.S. income by 2031; if it grew at a mere six percent a year, it would reach current U.S. levels by 2040.

Assuming the eight percent growth rate and that Chinese consumption habits will be similar to those of the United States today, per capita grain consumption would climb from 291 kilogrammes today to 935 kilogrammes for a U.S.-style diet, according to Brown.

That would bring total Chinese grain consumption in 2031 to 1.352 billion tonnes from only 382 million tonnes used in 2004 -- equal to two thirds of the entire 2004 world grain harvest.

”Given the limited potential for further raising the productivity of the world's existing cropland, producing an additional one billion tonnes of grain for consumption in china would require converting a large part of Brazil's remaining rainforests to grain production,” according to Brown, who noted that if Chinese per capita meat consumption alone were to rise to today's U.S. levels, about 80 percent of the world's current meat production would be consumed by Chinese.

Even more daunting are similar estimates for energy production. If by 2031 the Chinese use oil at the same rate as the U.S. does today, it would need 99 million barrels of oil a day, or 20 million barrels per day more than the entire world currently produces.

Similarly, if China's coal burning were to reach current U.S. levels of two tonnes per person per year, the country would use nearly three billion tonnes annually by 2031.

Current annual global production stands at 2.5 billion tonnes. As fossil fuels, oil and gas will also mean unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases -- blamed by scientists on climate change and global warming -- released into the atmosphere.

If steel production per person in China were to climb to U.S. levels, it would mean that China's aggregate steel use would double by 2031 to a level equal to the current consumption of the entire western world.

If China were to reach current levels of automobile ownership in the U.S. (three cars for every four people), it alone would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars by 2031, compared to the current global fleet of nearly 800 million.

”The paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots for such a fleet would approach the area now planted to rice in China,” according to Brown.

Similarly, if China were to ape current U.S. consumption of paper products, which are reliant on forests and recycled paper today, it would need nearly twice the amount of paper produced worldwide last year to satisfy its needs just for 2031.

”The point of this exercise of projections,” writes Brown, ”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.”

”Plan A, business as usual, is no longer a viable option. We need to turn quickly to Plan B before the geopolitics of oil, grain and raw material scarcity lead to economic instability, political conflict, and disruption of the social order on which economic progress depends”, according to Brown.

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