China's ecological footprint could cover the planet

Posted: 9 August 2008

As the summer Olympics gives fresh evidence of China's sporting and economic prowess, a new report points out that if China were to follow the consumption patterns of the United States, it would demand the available biocapacity of the entire planet.

The report, from the highly respected Global Footprint Network and Chinese partner agencies, finds that China's Ecological Footprint has quadrupled in the last four decades, with the country now demanding more from the planet than any nation except the United States.

China's ecological deficit 1961 - 2003
China's ecological deficit 1961 - 2003
China's ecological deficit 1961 - 2003
In the last 50 years, China has soared from being one of the more moderate consumers of the planet's resources to one of the largest, according to the report, which underscore the crucial role China will play in addressing the major resource challenges humanity faces in the 21st century.

"If China were to follow the consumption patterns of the United States, it would demand the available biocapacity of the entire planet, an outcome that is likely to be a physical impossibility for China, and for the other nations of the world," the report says. But,if China can model a new development path that achieves environmental quality and human well-being, it will lead the way for the world as a whole, it concludes.

Two Chinas

Since 1961, China's population has doubled and as the country has grown more affluent, its per-person resource consumption has also doubled. It now takes the equivalent of more than two Chinas to provide for the country's resource consumption and to absorb its waste. China's imports demanded as much biocapacity as that found in the entire country of Germany. Yet China's individual consumption remains relatively moderate on the world scale. The average Chinese resident has an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 global hectares, below the world average of 2.2, and a fraction of the 9.6-hectare Ecological Footprint of the average US resident. Over the last forty years, as China has seen a rapid rise in UN human development indicators that evaluate factors such as years of life expectancy, adult literacy, and per capita GDP, its Footprint has grown moderately in comparison.

Total footprint, top countries, 2003
Total footprint, top countries, 2003
Total ecological footprint, top countries, 2003
As China's infrastructure and economy grows, the country has the opportunity to make choices that lead it to high development without a high Ecological Footprint. Such a course would make China more resilient in the face of global resource constraints, the report states.

Dual strategy

"China has traditionally been forward-looking in recognizing that its resource constraints pose a serious potential threat to its long-term progress," said Global Footprint Network Executive Director Mathis Wackernagel. "China's leaders are painfully aware that they can only secure their population's well-being within the limits of what the planet can provide."

The report outlines a strategy by which China could reduce its total Ecological Footprint, while still helping secure a high quality of life for its citizens. It involves a dual strategy: on the one hand addressing activities that are cheap and easy to change -such as the use of energy-efficient lighting - and on the other those have the longest-term effect on resource use, such as investing in resource-efficient infrastructure.

To download the full report, click here.

The Report on Ecological Footprint in China was presented on June 10 in Beijing. It was produced by the Global Footprint Network, WWF China, and CCICED (China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development), a Chinese government advisory group.