EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Entering a New World: Learning from China

For many years environmentalists have pointed to the United States as the world’s leading consumer, noting that 5 percent of the world’s people were consuming nearly a third of the earth’s resources. Although that was true for some time, it no longer is. China has replaced the United States as the leading consumer of basic commodities. 11

Among the five basic food, energy, and industrial commodities—grain and meat, oil and coal, and steel—consumption in China has eclipsed that of the United States in all but oil. China has opened a wide lead with grain, consuming 380 million tons in 2005 versus 260 million tons in the United States. Among the big three grains, China leads in the consumption of both wheat and rice and trails the United States only in corn. 12

Although eating hamburgers is a defining element of the U.S. lifestyle, China’s 2005 meat consumption of 67 million tons is far above the 38 million tons eaten in the United States. While U.S. meat intake is rather evenly distributed between beef, pork, and poultry, in China pork totally dominates. Indeed, half the world’s pigs are now found in China. 13

With oil, the United States was still solidly in the lead in 2004, using more than three times as much as China—20.4 million barrels per day versus 6.5 million barrels. But U.S. oil use expanded by only 15 percent between 1994 and 2004, while use in China more than doubled. Having recently eclipsed Japan as an oil consumer, China now trails only the United States. 14

Energy use in China also obviously includes coal, which supplies nearly two thirds of the country’s energy. China’s annual burning of 960 million tons easily exceeds the 560 million tons used in the United States. With this level of coal use and with oil and natural gas use also climbing fast, it is only a matter of time before China’s carbon emissions match those of the United States. Then the world will have two major countries driving climate change. 15

China’s consumption of steel, a basic indicator of industrial development, is now nearly two and a half times that of the United States: 258 million tons to 104 million tons in 2003. As China has moved into the construction phase of development, building hundreds of thousands of factories and high-rise apartment and office buildings, steel consumption has climbed to levels never seen in any country. 16

With consumer goods, China leads in the number of cell phones, television sets, and refrigerators. The United States still leads in the number of personal computers, though likely not for much longer, and in automobiles. 17

That China has overtaken the United States in consumption of basic resources gives us license to ask the next question. What if China catches up with the United States in consumption per person? If the Chinese economy continues to grow at 8 percent a year, by 2031 income per person will equal that in the United States in 2004. If we further assume that consumption patterns of China’s affluent population in 2031, by then 1.45 billion, will be roughly similar to those of Americans in 2004, we have a startling answer to our question. 18

At the current annual U.S. grain consumption of 900 kilograms per person, including industrial use, China’s grain consumption in 2031 would equal roughly two thirds of the current world grain harvest. If paper use per person in China in 2031 reaches the current U.S. level, this translates into 305 million tons of paper—double existing world production of 161 million tons. There go the world’s forests. And if oil consumption per person reaches the U.S. level by 2031, China will use 99 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 84 million barrels a day and may never produce much more. This helps explain why China’s fast-expanding use of oil is already helping to create a politics of scarcity. 19

Or consider cars. If China one day should have three cars for every four people, as the United States now does, its fleet would total 1.1 billion vehicles, well beyond the current world fleet of 800 million. Providing the roads, highways, and parking lots for such a fleet would require paving an area roughly equal to China’s land in rice, its principal food staple. 20

The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from these projections is that there are not enough resources for China to reach U.S. consumption levels. The western economic model—the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy—will not work for China’s 1.45 billion in 2031. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India either, which by 2031 is projected to have even more people than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the “American dream.” And in an increasingly integrated world economy, where countries everywhere are competing for the same resources—the same oil, grain, and iron ore—the existing economic model will not work for industrial countries either. 21

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11. The New Road Map Foundation, “All-Consuming Passion: Waking up from the American Dream,” factsheet, EcoFuture, updated 17 January 2002.

12. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, & Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psd, updated 13 September 2005.

13. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), FAOSTAT Statistics Database, at apps.fao.org, updated 14 July 2005.

14. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration (EIA), “World Oil Demand,” International Petroleum Monthly, December 2004.

15. British Petroleum (BP), Statistical Review of World Energy 2005 (London: Group Media & Publishing, 2005).

16. International Iron and Steel Institute, Steel Statistical Yearbook 2004 (Brussels, 2004); data for 1990–93 from Phil Hunt, Iron and Steel Statistics Bureau, e-mail to Viviana Jiménez, Earth Policy Institute, 24 January 2005.

17. UNStats Statistics Database, at unstats.un.org/unsd, viewed 14 February 2005; International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Telecommunication Statistics at www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/at_glance/ cellular03.pdf, 15 March 2005; ITU, Telecommunication Statistics at www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/at_glance/internet03.pdf, 15 March 2005; Ward’s Communications, op. cit. note 9.

18. Chinese economic growth from International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Economic Outlook Database, at www.imf.org/external/ pubs/ft/weo, updated April 2005; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 6.

19. Grain from USDA, op. cit. note 12; paper includes coated papers, household and sanitary paper, newsprint, other papers, packaging, printing and writing paper, and wrapping papers, based on data from FAO, op. cit. note 13; oil from BP, op. cit. note 15; all per capita calculations based on population from United Nations, op. cit. note 6.

20. Ward’s Communications, op. cit. note 9.

21. United Nations, op. cit. note 6.

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