Learning from China.

Author:Brown, Lester R.

COULD THE AMERICAN DREAM IN CHINA become a nightmare for the world? Millions of Chinese already are living like Americans. Although these U.S.-style consumers only are a small fraction of the population, China's claims on the Earth's resources are becoming highly visible. For instance, China has replaced the U.S. as the world's leading consumer of most basic commodities, including grain, coal, and steel. Now the question is: What if consumption per person of these resources in China one day reaches the current U.S. level? Moreover, how long will it take for China's average annual income of $5,300 per person to reach the U.S. figure of $38,000?

During the time since the far-reaching economic reforms of 1978, China's economy has been growing at an annual breakneck pace of 9.5%. If it now were to grow at eight percent per year, doubling every nine years, income per person in 2031 for China's projected population of 1,450,000,000 would reach $38,000. (At a more conservative six percent annual growth rate, the economy would double every 12 years, overtaking the current U.S. income per person in 2040.)

For this exercise, we will assume an eight percent annual economic growth rate. If the Chinese consume resources in 2031 as voraciously as Americans do now, grain consumption per person there would climb from 291 kilograms today to the 935 kilograms needed to sustain a U.S.-style diet rich in meat, milk, and eggs. In 2031, China would consume 1,352,000,000 tons of grain, far above the 382,000,000 used in 2004. This is equal to two-thirds of the entire 2004 world grain harvest of just over 2,000,000,000 tons. Given the limited potential for further raising the productivity of the world's existing cropland, producing an additional 1,000,000,000 tons of grain for consumption in China would require converting a large part of Brazil's remaining rainforests to grain production.

With energy, the numbers are even more startling. If the Chinese use oil at the same rate as Americans do now, by 2031, China would need 99,000,000 barrels of oil a day. The world currently produces 79,000,000 barrels per day and may never output much more than that. Moreover, if China's coal burning were to reach the current U.S. level of nearly two tons per person, the country would use 2,800,000,000 annually--300,000,000 more than current world production.

Apart from the unbreathable air that such coal use would create, carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning in China alone...

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