Kenneth R. Weiss. July 22, 2012. China’s population and economy are a double whammy for the world China’s ‘one-child’ policy has slowed population growth and brought prosperity — but it couldn’t avert massive damage to the environment. Los Angeles Times.
China’s colossal industrial expansion of recent decades has depleted natural resources and polluted the skies and streams. China now consumes half the world’s coal supply. It leads all nations in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming. Pollutants from its smokestacks cause acid rain in Seoul and Tokyo.
China’s experience shows how rising consumption and even modest rates of population growth magnify each other’s impact on the planet.
The country’s population of 1.3 billion is increasing, even with the controls on family size. What is driving the growth is that hundreds of millions of Chinese are still in their reproductive years. On such a huge base, even one or two children per couple adds large numbers — an effect known as population momentum.
The compounding forces of economic and population growth are a source of increasing concern to scientists. An international team of 1,300 researchers organized by the United Nations concluded that evidence points to “abrupt and potentially irreversible changes” in ecosystems in the next few decades, including mass extinctions and rapid climate change.
Within China, signs of environmental damage are pervasive: massive fish kills, lung-searing smog, denuded landscapes. They have stirred popular discontent and the beginnings of greater official concern for curbing pollution and preserving natural resources.
How this drama plays out is not merely China’s concern. Because of the nation’s sheer size, the rest of the world has an enormous stake in the outcome. [I can seldom see San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, 12 miles away, anymore because of coal power plant and other pollution blowing in from China that muddies Bay Area skies — aha, right after I wrote this, I continued reading the article, and it says “almost 25% of the pollutants in the air above Los Angeles originated in China, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.”].
China’s massive population is a legacy of Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who strove to increase the ranks of the Red Army by encouraging large families and banning imports of contraceptives and declaring their use a “capitalist plot.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a series of famines claimed tens of millions of lives. The suffering left an enduring awareness that the country couldn’t sustain unlimited population growth.
China relies on coal to meet about two-thirds of its energy needs. Despite major investments in solar, wind and nuclear energy, coal consumption continues to climb.
Although China has the third-largest reserves in the world, it is reaching around the world for more. It overtook Japan this year as the world’s largest coal importer, drawing mostly from Indonesia and Australia. Its imports are expected to double by 2015.
Those trends are worrisome to climate scientists, who say that in order to avoid a potentially catastrophic rise in global temperatures, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions must be cut in half by 2050.
For that to happen, China’s emissions would have to peak by 2020, said Nobuo Tanaka, former director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, which advises governments on energy issues. But by China’s own projections, its output will rise at least 50% from current levels before peaking around 2035.
It would be all but impossible for other nations to compensate for such an increase, Tanaka said.