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Date Posted: 22:36 12/03/2005

Green walls and black holes

Has China's environment reached the tipping point?

DURING ONE of the national holidays last year, China's top leaders - accompanied by the local media - took a trip to the outskirts of Beijing to do their bit in the construction of the Great Green Wall. This bizarre but somehow endearing campaign to battle the problems of desertification involves the planting of several thousand trees around the capital.

During the photo-op, Premier Wen Jiabao proved himself to be particularly adept with a spade, and former Party leader Jiang Zemin also showed considerable spirit. However, when NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo appeared, he seemed uncomfortable. He fretted ineffectually with the soil for a few awkward seconds before scuttling away.

It occurred to Running Dog that Wu Bangguo somehow symbolized the attitude of the Chinese government towards the environment.

Despite all the campaigns, there has been more bad news this week. The Public Report on the State of Greenification was released yesterday by something called the All-China Greenification Commission, and says that the country remains one of the worst in terms of soil erosion and various other ecological problems. While the country has made 'some progress' in increasing forest coverage through various nationwide campaigns - including the 'Great Green Wall' - it still isn't good enough.

What is China going to do? Logging has already been banned after the devastating 1997 floods along the Yangtze midstream, leading to complaints that China has exported its deforestation to countries like Indonesia, Russia and Malaysia. Farmers have been told to put down their ploughs, give up their herds and plant trees instead, but still the deserts encroach. Has China already passed the tipping point? Is there any way of reversing these environmental trends without drastically undermining the country's economic aspirations?

Lester R. Brown, the founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Who Will Feed China?, notes that each Chinese person consumes 27 kg of paper per year, compared to 210 kg in the US. China would require 303 million tons a year to reach the US level, double the current world output level of 157 million tons. It would mean giving up the world's forests.

In another report released earlier in the month Brown said that China's consumption rates have already exceeded the United States in a number of crucial areas, including coal, steel and grain. China's claim on global resources is becoming increasingly untenable, and if Chinese per capita consumption levels were to match those in the United States, there would actually be no resources left.

Take oil. If China's per capita oil consumption was to reach the US level, the country would require 99 million barrels a day, more than the current global production level of 79 million barrels.

China's media can be terribly sensitive at times. The Shanghai-based Xinmin Weekly this week actually accused Lester R. Brown, of having 'malicious intent' towards China. You see, his concerns aren't environmental, but political, the magazine believes.

Xinmin Weekly, citing unnamed domestic experts, says that Brown has 'ulterior motives', and suggests that his major beef is not actually about the 'impact and contributions made by China to the global economy', but rather, China's growing strength and the US's 'heavy dependence on Chinese funds'.

'Whatever the motives behind Lester Brown's thesis, readers will easily come to believe on the basis of this report that China has become a consumption black hole,' says the report. His 'completely inaccurate statistics' and 'completely unrigorous deductions' can be refuted, it goes on to claim.
In any case, with a population of 1.3 billion, it isn't surprising that China's consumption of meat and grain exceeds the US.

Despite Xinmin Weekly, our old friend Pan Yue told Der Spiegel that the exponential increase in the use of scarce resources in China simply cannot go on, and that the economic miracle 'will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace'. It is already too late to rely on the fruits of economic growth to handle environmental crises, he said. 'The assumption that the economic growth will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth' is false.

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