China and India Set to Steer Global Sustainability

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 2006 (ENS) - China and India are poised to join the United States as "planetary powers" with the economic muscle and influence to transform the ecological future of the Earth, the Worldwatch Institute said Wednesday in its annual report, "State of the World 2006."

There remains a serious threat that the booming economies of China and India will result in increased ecological and political instability, Worldwatch said, but there is also great opportunity for the two Asian giants to steer the world toward a path of sustainability.

"The world is in the midst of a colossal shift," Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin told reporters at a Washington, DC press briefing. "The choices that China and India make in the next several years will have a huge impact on the quality of life throughout the world."

The rising demand for natural resources, energy and food by the 2.5 billion people in China and India "is already having ripple effects worldwide," Flavin said. "Meanwhile, record-shattering consumption levels in the United States and Europe leave little room for this projected Asian growth."

The United States, Europe, Japan, India, and China together claim 75 percent of the Earth's "biocapacity," according to the report, effectively leaving 25 percent for the rest of the world.

students

Students in the Chinese city of Chengdu prepare for a bike ride. (Photo courtesy Galen Frysinger)
The report warns that if China and India gobble natural resources and emit pollution at per capita rates currently seen in the United States it will take "two planet Earths just to sustain their countries."

The western, resource-intensive economic model of growth India and China "wish most feverishly to emulate is intrinsically toxic," writes Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, in a foreword to the 272-page report. "It uses huge resources – energy and materials – and it generates enormous waste."

But there is ample evidence that China and India are following the western model on several fronts – in particular in their use of fossil fuels.

Coal provides more than two-thirds of China's energy and half of India's.

China is already the world's second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, while India ranks fourth. Both must be major players in efforts to combat climate change, the report said.

Both nations also are growing increasingly thirsty for oil.

In the past decade China has gone from near self-sufficiency in oil to the world’s second largest importer and India’s oil use has doubled since 1992.

The report predicts that at the current growth rate global oil demand – largely fueled by China and India – will reach 200 million barrels a day by 2050. Few experts believe the world can produce that much oil, Flavin said.

China's impact in particular is being felt in other markets - in 2005, China alone used 26 percent of the world's steel, 32 percent of the rice, and 47 percent of the cement.

The report notes that if Chinese per capita grain consumption were to double to roughly European levels, China alone would require the equivalent of nearly 40 percent of today's global grain harvest.

The "global resource squeeze" is already evident, according to the report, in riots over rising oil prices in Indonesia, growing pressure on Brazil's forests and fisheries, and the loss of manufacturing jobs in Central America.

"The encouraging sign is that if China and India were to choose … they truly could push the world in a new direction," Flavin said.

Calcutta

A crowded street in Calcutta, India (Photo credit unknown)
And the two nations are making inroads in sustainable energy use and energy efficiency, according to the report, which cites several examples of a "leapfrog strategy" to sustainability.

For example, India aims to increase renewable energy's share of its power from five percent to 20-25 percent – it already has the fourth largest wind power industry in the world.

China has tightened fuel economy standards and declared public transit a national priority.

Rainwater harvesting strategies are spreading in India, Worldwatch said, and more than 35 million Chinese use solar power to heat water.

As encouraging as these developments are, Flavin said, the United States and other industrialized nations – whose per capita resource consumption dwarf both China and India combined - need to lead by example.

"Ultimately developing countries around the world look for signals," Flavin said. "[They] will logically be persuaded more by what we do than what we say."

In addition to promoting environmentally-friendly technologies, the report recommends the U.S., Europe and Japan to welcome China and India as "formal leaders" at international bodies such as the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the G8.

"We in the West are going to have to reinvent our economies as well," Flavin added. "If China and India do begin to move forward with a leapfrog strategy we risk losing out on some of the great new industries of the 21st century. It is as a challenge at least as much for us as it is for them."

The report can be found online at: http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/sow/2006/