China Eats the World

The last empire, by the numbers

Mon Dec. 10, 2007 4:00 AM EST

Per-capita income in China is less than 1/10 of America's and its per-capita greenhouse gas emission is less than 1/5 of ours. But if 1.3 billion Chinese were to consume at the level Americans do, we'd need several more Earths. China's effect on world resources, quantified:

China is

  • The world's largest consumer of coal, grain, fertilizer, cell phones, refrigerators, and televisions
  • The leading importer of iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel
  • The top producer of coal, steel, cement, and 10 kinds of metal
  • The No. 1 importer of illegally logged wood
  • The third-largest producer of cars after Japan and the United States; by 2015, it could be the world's largest car producer. By 2020, there could be 130 million cars on its roads, compared to 33 million now.

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More Facts

  • China produces half of the world's cameras, 1/3 of its television sets, and 1/3 of all the planet's garbage.
  • There are towns in China that make 60% of the world's button supply, 1/2 of all silk neckties, and 1/2 of all fireworks.
  • China uses half of the world's steel and concrete and will probably construct half of the world's new buildings over the next decade.
  • Some Chinese factories can fit as many as 200,000 workers.
  • China used 2.5 billion tons of coal in 2006, more than the next three highest-consuming nations—Russia, India, and the United States—combined.
  • It has more than 2,000 coal-fired power plants and puts a new one into operation every 4 to 7 days.
  • Between 2003 and 2006, worldwide coal consumption increased as much as it did in the 23 years before that. China was responsible for 90% of the increase.
  • China became the world's top carbon dioxide emitter in 2006, overtaking the United States.
  • Russia is China's largest timber supplier; half of all logging there is illegal. In Indonesia, another timber supplier to China, up to 80% of all logging takes place illegally.
  • 90% of all wood products made in China are consumed in the country, including 45 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks each year.
  • The value of China's timber-product exports exceeds $17 billion. About 40 percent go to the United States.
  • More than 3/4 of China's forests have disappeared; 1/4 of the country's land mass is now desert.
  • Until recently, China was losing a Rhode Island-sized parcel of land to desertification each year.
  • 80% of the Himalayan glaciers that feed Chinese rivers could melt by 2035.
  • In 2005, China's sulfur-dioxide emissions were nearly twice those of the United States.
  • Acid rain caused by air pollution now affects 1/3 of China's land.
  • Each year, at least 400,000 Chinese die prematurely of air-pollution-linked respiratory illnesses or diseases.
  • A quarter of a million people die because of motor-vehicle traffic each year—6 times as many as in the United States, even though Americans have 18 times as many cars.
  • Of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are in China.
  • Half of China's population—600 to 700 million people—drinks water contaminated with human and animal waste. A billion tons of untreated sewage is dumped into the Yangtze each year.
  • 4/5 of China's rivers are too polluted to support fish.
  • The Mi Yun reservoir, Beijing's last remaining reliable source of drinking water, has dropped more than 50 feet since 1993.
  • Overuse of groundwater has caused land subsidence that cost Shanghai alone $12.9 billion in economic losses.
  • Dust storms used to occur once a year. Now, they happen at least 20 times a year.
  • Chinese dust storms can cause haziness and boost particulate matter in the United States, all the way over to Maine.
  • In 2001, a huge Chinese storm dumped 50,000 metric tons of dust on the United States. That's 2.5 times as much as what U.S. sources produce in a typical day.
  • Currently, up to 36 percent of man-made mercury emissions settling on America originated in Asia.
  • Particulate matter from Asia accounts for nearly half of California's annual pollution limit.
  • Environmental damage reportedly costs China 10 percent of its GDP. Pollution-related death and disability heath care costs alone are estimated at up to 4 percent of GDP.
  • In 2005, there were 50,000 pollution-related disputes and protests in China.
  • China's middle class is expected to jump from 100 million people today to 700 million people by 2020.

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