Monday, August 31, 2015

Living in a Real Life Dystopian State

Chinese leaders may think their biggest enemy is the United States but what's most likely to bring China down is home grown.

Ten years ago it cost him his job but that didn't stop then Deputy Minister of the Environment, Pen Yue, from speaking to Der Spiegel about China's environmental apocalypse.

Many factors are coming together here: Our raw materials are scarce, we don't have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently, there are 1.3 billion people living in China, that's twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020, there will be 1.5 billion people in China. Cities are growing but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years.

This 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.

Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn't include the costs for health. Then there's the human suffering: In Bejing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment. Lung cancer has emerged as the No. 1 cause of death.

Even now, the western regions of China and the country's ecologically stressed regions can no longer support the people already living there. In the future, we will need to resettle 186 million residents from 22 provinces and cities. However, the other provinces and cities can only absorb some 33 million people. That means China will have more than 150 million ecological migrants, or, if you like, environmental refugees.

While the figure often varies from week to week, China's central government admits that between 19 and 25% of the country's farmland is so toxic from persistent industrial contamination, arsenic and heavy metals, as to be incapable of growing food fit for human consumption. Outsiders put that figure at closer to 40%. Imagine if your province had to take a quarter of its agricultural land out of production for a couple of generations or more because of irremediable soil contamination? Imagine if the greatest threat to your life was breathing the air? Imagine knowing that you were being set up to contract lung cancer?

The double-whammy, is China's rapacious consumption of the world's resources.

In the result, today, with 20 percent of the world's population, China is now by far the world's largest consumer of marketed primary industrial raw materials (cement, metal ores, industrial minerals, fossil fuels and biomass). China consumes more than 32 percent of the world's total of these resources, nearly four times as much as the United States, the second largest consumer. China consumes just over half the world's coal and a third of the world's oil. China is the leading producer and consumer of steel with 46 percent of world output and now relies on imports for 77 percent of its iron ore. China has become the world's largest consumer of lumber and forest products, leveling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo and Madagascar. Greenpeace concluded that on current trends "future generations will be living on a planet without ancient forests."

Of course, China has the world's largest population and is industrializing from a comparatively low level just three decades ago so it's hardly surprising that it would consume lots of resources to build infrastructure and modernize. But the fact is, most of these resources have been squandered on a stupendous scale, and for all the waste and pollution, most Chinese have gotten surprisingly little out of it all.
In 1990, China had just 5.5 million cars, trucks and buses on the road. By 2013, China became the world's largest auto assembler cranking out 18.7 million cars and light vehicles, more than twice the number produced in the United States in that year. By 2013, China had 240 million cars on its roads, almost as many as in the United States, and China could have an estimated 390-532 million cars on the road by 2050.
...In The Wall Street Journal of August 20, 2014, Justin Yifu Lin, an economist and close adviser to senior leaders in Beijing, stated that he's confident China can sustain its recent 8 percent per year growth rate for the foreseeable future. He predicts "20 years of roaring growth" for China. Really? Where does Yifu think the resources are going to come from for this scale of consumption? As it happens, in 2011, the Earth Policy Institute at Columbia University calculated that if China keeps growing by around 8 percent per year, Chinese average per capita consumption will reach the current US level by around 2035. But to provide the natural resources for China's 1.3 billion to consume on a per capita basis like the United States' 330 million consume today, the Chinese - roughly 20 percent of the world's population - will consume as much oil as the entire world consumes today. It would also consume more than 60 percent of other critical resources.


Hugh said...

Using the divide into 72 rule, a growth rate of 8% would mean China's economy would double in 9 years.

And we seem to freak out when China's growth rate drops below 7%, as if it's a big problem.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yeah, I know. I had to read a report by three Chinese experts as part of a global food security course I did, last year or the year before. The wheat part was interesting enough but I kept reading as they got into their country's industrial growth and projected increase in per capita GDP.

They also saw per capita GDP exploding, tripling, in the course of just a couple of decades. It was staggering. Where were they going to find the resources, especially the already over-exploited renewables to pull that off?

I read another study by a leading Chinese economist that was more realistic. He recognized the problem of resources scarcity and concluded that China would never be able to have more than a small segment of its population living at Western standards. He also found that China had to permit that standard of living for its entrepreneurial and technological classes. The only way to achieve this, he concluded, was for China to establish an "island of prosperity" for the few floating on a sea of relative poverty. He noted that would probably mean the use of force as necessary to quell internal unrest.

This economist foresaw a similar result for India.

Neither report factored in China's environmental degradation or its looming mass health crisis. It's hard to fault Chinese experts for this. Today we often see climate change forecasts that fail to incorporate the impacts of overpopulation and over-consumption on both adaptation and mitigation. It does undermine the credibility of the research and prevents us from formulating meaningful, effective responses.