China's Ecological Footprint Unsustainable - We'd Still Need 1.2 Planets If Everyone Had It


photo: tinabasgen/Creative Commons

China has been the world's foremost carbon emitter for over a year now--with per capita emissions now higher than those of France--and this summer overtook the US to become the world's largest energy consumer as well. Now, according to new analysis by WWF, China can also check itself off on another eco-black list: If everyone on the planet consumed natural resources like the average Chinese person, we'd need more than one planet to supply us all. In fact 1.2 planets. But wait!, you say. "Isn't a large part of China's environmental impact due to exporting so many consumer goods to the rest of the world and because it's mostly powered by coal?," you ask. "I read on TreeHugger that up to one-third of its carbon emissions are due to foreign trade."

You're right, but head of WWF International James Leape says that all of that manufacturing has been excluded from the 1.2 planet figure (Reuters). If all those cheap consumer goods were included, the figure would be even higher.

To give that level of consumption some perspective, remember that if everyone lived like the average American we'd need 4.5 Earth's worth of resources, and if everyone lived like the average Indian we'd still have half the planet's resource available to consume sustainably.

$5000 Per Year Resource Consumption Sustainable
Where's the middle point between those, where every nation needs to head if we don't want to either 1) outstrip the planet's ability to support us and cause civilizational collapse (which sounds slightly flippant writing it, but isn't in the slightest), 2) throw the idea of global equity among societies out the door, accepting the idea that there are some nations that have a right to extreme luxury while others have comparatively nothing, or 3) enter into protracted resource conflicts reducing population numbers to the point that everyone can live like people in the US do, or about 1.6 billion total human population (based on Worldwatch Institute analysis, not WWF)?

Well, that middle point, again using that Worldwatch Institute analysis (as they frame the issue in terms of dollars as proxy for resource consumption, which somehow seems easier to grasp than the global hectares used in most ecological footprinting), is about the consumption of people living in Jordan or Thailand. In the scheme of things way less than what is normal in the US or any of the wealthy nations of the world, but it's not absolute poverty for everyone by a long short, nor lacking many of the modern comforts we take for granted even if they return to being luxuries.

Development Past What is Ecological Sustainable & Equitably Distributed a Wrong Goal
How many more reports like this have to be produced before we have the collective epiphany that those of us in the rich nations have to cut way, way back on our how much we consume (and that includes China as well as a good number of so-called emerging economies that still have large ecological and carbon footprints, even if the classifications of international relations haven't yet caught up with that)?

While it's perfectly reasonable to say that every person and nation on the planet has a right to development (human development, economic development, etc etc), the moment it passes the ability of the planet to support that--equitably extended, I for one will not abandon that goal--it is unreasonable to maintain that you still have the right to go further, even if other nations have, as it is their duty to cut back, not continuing to expand.

Will We Be Able to Avoid Collapse & Resource Conflict?
Which is the optimistic outlook, and I try to maintain the perspective that smooth transition is possible. But given the enormous disparities both between nations and within nations--both that Chinese figure and the US figure mask marked differences in consumption patterns, and the Indian figure is no doubt lowered by high levels of absolute poverty--transitioning to something that is ecological sustainable without a mixture of collapse and conflict often seems implausible.

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Don't Panic photo: Eric Molina/Creative Commons
More on Ecological Footprint:
Is It Time We Maximize Our Ecological Impact? Being Less Bad is Not Enough
Overconsumption in Rich Nations Leading Humanity From a Living Planet to a Dead One
Cult of Consumerism at Root of Planet's Environmental Destruction & Degradation
More on China:
West 'Responsible' For Third of China's CO2 Emissions
China No Longer a Developing Nation - Per Capita Carbon Emissions Higher Than France's
China in Denial About Becoming World's Largest Energy Consumer

Tags: China | Consumerism | Economics

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