• Sun
  • Aug 31, 2014
  • Updated: 5:03pm

China's industrial growth 'a threat to resources'

UN study warns China is consuming minerals and fossil fuels 'at a rate never seen before'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 5:43am

China's transformation from agricultural backwater to booming industrial powerhouse has required it to consume resources at a speed and scale the world has never seen, a new UN study has found.

The report by the Kenya-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that the country's rapid economic development had come at a huge price - fast-depleting resources and a massive degradation of the environment.

"China's dramatic economic growth over the past few decades has increased demands for natural resources within and beyond the country itself in ways that are unprecedented in human history," UN Undersecretary General Achim Steiner said in the report. "While that growth has lifted millions out of poverty, it has also come with rising environmental challenges."

The report credited China's "exceptionally good" efforts at improving resource efficiency, But it cautioned that the pace of this improvement was insufficient to offset the environmental damage from extracting, processing and consuming natural resources.

Analysts said the report could raise concerns about the potential for further ecological degradation as President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang pin much of their economic hopes for the next decade on a new round of urbanisation.

In the last three decades, China has grown from a modest user of minerals, fossil fuels and other primary materials to become the world's largest consumer, the report found.

The country consumed 22.6 billion tonnes of such materials in 2008 - nearly a third of the world's total - up from 1.7 billion tonnes in 1970. It consumes four times as much as the United States, the second-biggest user.

"This is a combined result of China's huge population and fast economic growth during the period," said Chen Shaofeng , a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Policy and Management, a main author of the report.

The country's population grew to 1.3 billion from 816 million over the 38-year period.

But the amount of resources used by every citizen has also soared as their living standards improved. Per capita resource consumption rose from 31 per cent of the world average in 1970 to 1.62 times the world average in 2008, with the sharpest rise coming after 2000.

The report did not compare China's development with the industrialisation and urbanisation of the United States and Europe, which were stretched out over two centuries.

But such developed countries have now outsourced most of their material and energy-intensive production processes to the developing world, allowing China to maintain a relatively high level of self-sufficiency.

Despite a continuous increase in resource efficiency - growing at a rate of 3.91 per cent annually - the country still lags behind global and regional standards. In 2009, China used 2.5 times more energy than the global average to produce each unit of economic growth.

The report also mentioned the country's environmental decline. By the end of last year, fewer than one in four major cities in China had safe air. About 30 per cent of the country's major rivers and 60 per cent of its groundwater was polluted, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

"Unprecedented innovation is required in the country's future development to avert further degradation," Chen said.

Besides creating environmental challenges domestically, China's enormous demand for natural resources also became a driving force of the consumption rise regionally and globally, the report said.

The findings come as China prepares to enact significant changes in the way it consumes natural resources, as the central government plans to move another 390 million people from the countryside to cities by 2030.

Wu Changhua , the regional director for The Climate Group, said that Beijing realises that the old model of urbanisation is no longer sustainable.



For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

Harold Cameron
For 300 years the rest of the world, the west in particular have used the world's resources, so why not China. In an equal world we should all be able to use these resources as long as we don't destroy the natural landscape & when resources are exhausted the landscape is returned as near as possible to its original beauty.
A truer caption of this article should be ‘Industrial growth is a threat to world’s resource’. This is the fact. If China keeps quiet against such UN allegation or SCMP’s caption, the issue on over consumption of natural resources is then greatly lost. And China deserves to be blamed for being the largest consumer of natural resources. You know it is not true.
This issue was addressed in detail in my book Toxic Capitalism. The study here is just one more confirmation. However the West should not blame too much China: what do they expect, China being Factory of The World, making all the goods for them? With excessive consumption and waste in the West, it only becomes worse and China needs more energy and raw materials – as well as food. The West is often hypocritical in this respect.
@newgalileo: Indeed, the current model of global capitalism (including China's own version) is toxic (as you rightly put it) and the root cause for all energy / resource problems we face today. I can't agree with you more. I am afraid humanity (East or West) will never have a solution to detoxify capitalism as is. The fundamental characteristic of human nature is greed.
"Wu Changhua , the regional director for The Climate Group, said that Beijing realises that the old model of urbanisation is no longer sustainable"
Who is this "Beijing" person I keep hearing about? At the local level people seem to be acting differently. I meet with people from two coal-fired power stations in Hubei province currently under construction yesterday. They told me that relative to products that could save energy or reduce pollution they are mostly concerned about price.


SCMP.com Account