Treading Heavily on the Environment: China's Growing Eco-Footprint Highlighted in New Report

air pollution in a chinese city photo

photo by Sheila via flickr

We've written about the concept of Eco-Footprint a number of times--what it is, how to calculate it, and how to reduce yours--and with the Olympics upon us it comes as no surprise that China's environmental footprint might come into the spotlight.

A new report by the Global Footprint Network, WWF, and the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development does just that. While China is the obvious focus, really this report highlights how humanity as a whole is increasingly overshooting the biological capacity of the planet. It also includes recommended steps that China can take to address the issue of its increasingly heavy environmental impact.

countries ecofooprint graph image

global biocapacity graph image

China Has Low Individual Footprint, But High National Footprint
What the report finds is that, per capita, China ranks 69th in the world, with each person requiring 1.6 hectares of biocapacity to support them. This is lower than the global average of 2.2 hectares per person, and quite a bit lower than the United States' world-leading 10 hectares per person.

However, because of the of the overall size of the country, China ranks 3rd in total global eco-footprint, trailing the United States and the entire European Union.

Footprint Grows Along With GDP
The result is that currently China requires the equivalent of two times its biocapacity to support its current population and current level of economic activity. As China's GDP grows the amount of resources it requires only increase. Therefore, it has to effectively import biocapacity from elsewhere.

china's GDP and ecofootprint graph image

Export Manufacturing Responsible
To enable this, approximately 75% of China's total biocapacity imports are consumed by this process. Only slightly more than 25% of these remain in the country for domestic consumption. We recently highlighted a report that shows that roughly a third of China's carbon emissions are directly tied to manufacturing of consumer goods for export.

As of 2003, the nearest year for which data is available, China consumed 15% of the total biocapacity of the planet. The report points out that if China were to follow the lead of the United States, in terms of levels of natural resource consumption, it alone would require the entire biological capacity of the planet. Obviously this would be an impossibility, so something needs to change, both in China and in the rest of the world.

Where To Go From Here?
The report recommends five areas that need to be addressed. This is where all nations should pay attention. These areas are:

Population -- Slow and reverse population growth by offering better family planning opportunities, increasing education and economic opportunity for women. This is probably the most uncomfortable aspect of our environmental problems, but also one most in need of action.

Consumption -- Essentially, we need to increase consumption at the bottom end of the scale to lift people out of poverty, while reducing (radically, I'd say) consumption at the top end. The report points out that the average Italian uses half as many resources to have a standard of living equal if not better than in some ways than the average US citizen. It is possible to do more with less when it comes to consumption and we must do that, particularly in the United States.

lucca, italy photo

photo by Ruth Lozano
Technology -- Not a technological quick fix, but improvements in energy efficiency both in manufacturing and in the home, waste reduction and recycling increase, reduction of the distance which goods travel between factory and marketplace.

Area -- Reclaim and rehabilitate lands suffering from environmental degradation to increase biological capacity.

Productivity -- Increase the useful production per hectare of land through better land management. The report points out that while intensive agriculture can increase crop yields, this comes at the expense of biodiversity loss and increased fertilizer and energy usage, both which ultimately increase ecological footprint. As a recent UN report essentially said, we need a revolution in farming that takes a more holistic, ecosystems approach to agriculture, rather than the continued industrial viewpoint.

global biocapacity graph image

What Can You Do?
Some of these steps really require large-scale action, but that can be led to some degree at the individual level. A good first step, as we've said many times, is to assess your own ecological footprint. I'll plug The Footprint Networks' Personal Eco-Footprint calculator as the report I've been referencing comes from them, though there are plenty of other good calculators on the internet.

From there you can look at ways you can reduce your own eco-footprint, keeping in mind that there is a line below which you can't go simply because of the structure of the society in which you live. That's where the heavy lifting has to come in and structural changes have to be made.

There's more on this report, and more on eco-footprints in general at :: The Footprint Network.

All charts: The Footprint Network
Ecological Footprint
Brazil and India Top Greendex; USA, Canada and France Finish Last
Your Ecological Footprint: Defining, Calculating and Reducing Your Environmental Footprint
Africans' Modest Eco-Footprint Still Has Negative Impacts in Some Countries
China Gets Dubious Honor of World's #1 CO2 Emitter
It's Not You, It's Me: 33% of China's CO2 Emissions From Export Manufacturing

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