What China’s Economic Growth Means for the Global Environment

Fueled by Western Capitalism, China is on the rise, knocking down forests, displacing watersheds, and exhaling a toxic amalgam of gases and particulates along its way. Much of the information below was retrieved in 2007, immediately before the unprecedented vagaries in the global ‘market’ (aka the barometer that purports to show how efficiently Capitalism is destroying the planet); and some of the data has been subject to minor change. However, China’s economy, if it continues to grow, will result in tremendous environmental devastation.

China’s Entry into the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.) 

In 2001 China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO). Their enrollment into the WTO has allowed a multitude of transnational corporations to set up shop within the provincial cities of China, moving 300 million people out of poverty, a substantial number indeed; but China’s total population is approximately 1,321,851,888 as of July 2007 – that is 1/5 of the world’s total population. In fact, an equal proportion of 300 million Chinese denizens are subjected to abject poverty while a little over 700 million more endure abysmal working conditions and subdued living conditions.

China’s augmented trade relations have only strengthened the proliferation of transnational corporations (TNCs), rather than advancing the quality of life for its citizens. Wal-Mart (the world’s largest retailer) has fifty percent of its suppliers located in China, purchasing $18 billion worth of Chinese products annually, and by 2006 there were already fifty Wal-Marts within the country.(1) Additionally, Wal-Mart is far from the paragon of social and environmental responsibility. Wal-Mart is culpable for worker exploitation through unfair working conditions and improper salaries and pay (Chinese garment workers make less than twenty cents per day), as well as expunging natural resources for their low-cost products, all in the name of expedience and efficiency.

China’s economy has been able to skyrocket on account of bulldozing transnationals looking to expand and sprawl forth, and they have finally been granted such privileges under the aegis of the World Trade Organization. China has granted U.S. investments significant tax breaks and markdowns on land prices in return for a plethora of private enterprises with the hope to continue to boost China’s economy upwards. It’s a clever cycle of supply and demand: TNCs need cheaper production costs and more land for development; China demands more private business for its growth; and the Western consumer demands the products (the U.S. is the primary market for China’s exports and China is the 4th largest market for U.S. exports).

As it stood in ’07, China’s trade with Japan had eclipsed U.S. trade with Japan, and in 2004 China had supplanted the U.S. as South Korea’s largest trading partner. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) had sprouted from less than five percent in 1980 to nearly 16 percent in 2007, landing one slot away from attaining global economic supremacy, the U.S. still being number one. Also, China’s exports have jumped from $150 billion in 1996 to approximately $1 trillion in 2006.(2) The final outcome? China is side by side with Japan as the world’s largest foreign retainers of U.S. debt, and combined the two accounts for 47 percent of more than $2 trillion total.

Ostensibly, it would appear that the U.S. is the global economic supremacist; but in all honesty China has quite the stranglehold on the U.S. with its holdings of over $1 trillion of U.S. debt. And how does Japan’s economy really hold up? According to economist at the Economics and Management School, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Han Deqiang, "Japan’s debt in proportion to GDP is the highest in the world, roughly 130 percent, and its rate of growth has been somewhere near zero."(3) No wonder Japan’s economy is foundering so hard right now. China’s stature may be grander than once thought, but without a doubt, China’s economic growth is contingent upon foreign trade. However, it is clear none of this is sustainable.

As China’s economy grows, the nation is demanding the use of more fossil fuels to power its infrastructure as well as an increase in privately owned vehicles. More land is needed to make room for supporting industry and business, and according to Han Deqiang "When Wal-Mart goes to Gweiyang or Beijing, say, they knock out, in an instant, four or five department stores,"(4) directly conducing to job loss.

Although China manufactures more than half of the world’s electronics and low-cost products, at what expense does the natural environment we live in have to pay? And in the name of expedience and modernity, how far will China continue to foment negligent economic growth? Despite ostensible reports of progress, China is projected to follow a path that will make them the world’s leading greenhouse-gas emitter by 2020- this is just one of the myriad environmental repercussions due to China’s economic expansion that will undoubtedly fare ill for the entire global population if continued.

It is obvious that China has adopted similar methods the U.S. has implemented to further private enterprise, industry development, and economic growth. But as we have learned time and again here in the states, the GDP may go up while the quality of life goes down, e.g. private investors have cashed in on insurance claims immediately after hurricane Katrina; meanwhile, the nation’s GDP can go up while thousands of families are left homeless and a city remains in shambles. Another example is urban sprawl – a condition in which the nation’s GDP swells upward at the expense of environmental degradation and community disengagement: for every dollar spent at a corporate retailer 15 cents is automatically reinvested back into the community, whereas every dollar spent at an independent local retailer 45 cents is automatically reinvested back into the community.(5) Another stifling fact: in 2000, lucrative sales for the top 200 corporations were eighteen times the combined income of the more than 1.2 billion people living in abject poverty.(6) So much for "democratic" Free trade.

China’s Current Environmental Dilemma

"To raise consumption of energy and materials throughout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would so severely compromise the biosphere that the Earth would be unrecognizable." – Wade Davis

Although China does not constitute the entire world’s population, China does harbor one fifth. At the current rate of energy consumption and product manufacturing, developing China has already made its countryside unrecognizable. The country is home to sixteen of the world’s twenty greatest polluted cities, and approximately 14,000 new cars emerge on China’s roads every day resulting in more than 52,700 miles of developing highways throughout the country.(7) The rate that China is moving toward fostering a private-car based economy is alarmingly high, contributing to global carbon emissions and global warming. Without mutability in China’s current stride of development, China is expected to emit more CO2 than North America and Japan combined by 2025, a frightening fact that attenuates the efforts to curb CO2 emissions dramatically within the next couple of years. Moreover, according to GeoHive (an online data base), China claims chief rank in the world arena for coal production (38.37 percent), providing roughly 70 percent of China’s energy – a climb from 309.9 million tons of coal burned annually in 1981 to 1,107.7 million tons by the year 2005; 2006 saw a total of 2.4 billion tons – more than the U.S., Japan, and the U.K. combined.

Furthermore, four of the most polluted cities reside in the coal-rich province of Shanxi. Ninety percent of China’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions and fifty percent of its particulate emissions are a consequence of coal consumption. The U.S. only reaches half of China’s numbers pertaining to coal production and consumption, and already faces dire consequences e.g. significant loss of watershed alongside loss of plant and animal species, flood, drought, abysmal health conditions, and poverty to name but a handful. So how bad does China have it? According to China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), air pollution is culpable for 400,000 premature deaths annually alongside extinctive damage to myriad ecosystems harboring unique forms of life,(8) e.g. the endangered panda.

Since the 1950s China has lost 36,000 square miles (the size of Indiana) to desertification, and the Gobi Desert maintains an annual growth rate of 1,900 square miles. Although China retains the 4th largest freshwater resources in the world, they are quickly drying up and/or are rapidly being tainted by the agricultural sector, urban development and growth, as well as mismanaged irrigation and more. It is estimated from one report procured by the government-run Xinhua News Agency that "aquifers in ninety percent of Chinese cities are polluted" and that "more than 75 percent of the river water flowing through China’s urban areas is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing" and as a result "nearly 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste."(9)

Due to China’s despoiling of its watershed, many of China’s cities are sinking; Shanghai and Tianjin have already sunk more than six feet over the past fifteen years. The Yangtze River, which begins in Tibet and flows into Shanghai, receives 40 percent of China’s sewage, of which 80 percent is untreated. The Yellow River, which affords water to more than 150 million people (15 percent of China’s agricultural land), is regarded as "unsafe to drink" and ten percent is considered sewage.(10)

The World Wildlife Fund reports that China "is now the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean" and that "more than 80 percent of the Eastern China Sea (one of the world’s largest fisheries) is now rated unsuitable for fishing." There is almost no river from China that flows into the seas clean.

In 2006, the provincial industry of Guangdong and Fujian dumped nearly 8.3 billion tons of sewage into the ocean without treatment. The Bohai Sea, which is expected to be barren and infecund within 12 years, receives approximately 2.8 billion tons of "contaminated" water each year.(11) As industry grows along the coastline, tons of pollutants taint the waters; SEPA estimates that half of China’s offshore seawater has been "poisoned." A report from Chinadaily.com states that "last year [2006] there were over 80 incidents of algae blooms in the shallow waters off China’s coast, leading to direct economic losses of nearly 8.6 million U.S. dollars." Algae blooms, also known as "red tides", are massive blooms of algae teeming with hazardous levels of toxins and have been on the rise throughout China’s ocean shoals.(12) Not only are red tides perhaps an augury of economic loss on the horizon, but are also harbingers of death and toxicity for the myriad plant and animal species that are indigenous to the coastal waters and vital to sea-life.

As production increases in China so does the economy, but it is explicitly realizable that the current growth rate does not sustain a natural environment that offers such imperative resources for an industrial nation’s economy – talk about irony. It’s apparent that industrial civilization is just not sustainable.

It has been estimated that for every pound of electronics, 8,000 pounds of resources are used along the way for the manufacturing processes and assembly. According to the latter statement, China’s colorable achievement of being one of the world’s largest producers of energy efficient lights and windows, as well as solar cells, really translates as acute resource extraction and land/air/water pollution. Somewhere along the line, someone has to blow the whistle. Somewhere along the line, China must adopt a less formidable economic model to espouse to, one that is much more sustainable with respect to the natural environment. Please China – stop following in the West’s footsteps.

How will the world’s environment stand against China’s economy?

One should be aware at this point that China, influenced heavily by western capitalism, champions unprecedented industrial growth. With an increasing push for more privately owned vehicles, a larger infrastructure, and heightened product manufacturing, China will sit comfortably as the world principle emitter of green-house gases, carbon, particulate emissions and then some. In 2004, "China installed as much new electricity generating capacity, mostly fossil fueled, as the entire electricity output of the U.K."(13) Such prodigious development has been a hallmark of China’s growth as well as an environmental hazard elsewhere.

A consequence of China’s booming coal industry, acid rain precipitates on at least 14 percent of its own country as well as on Japan and South Korea – damaging crops, woodland, and water ecosystems.(14) To make matters worse, as a result of China’s gorging coal industry, 25-40 percent of all mercury emissions in the world come from China- a statistic that will steadily climb if China’s economic gait is not tapered. As for the U.S., the EPA cited a model showing that China contributes close to 30 percent of background sulfate particulate matter in the Western U.S. and is responsible for one percent of all particulate matter in L.A.(15)

There is no red light in sight for China’s transnational-fueled economy. It is near impossible to expect growth to slow down enough before China reaches emissions levels that are predicted to throw the planet’s biosphere into an unrecognizable state. Meanwhile, a 2007 report issued from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency stated that China has already outdistanced the U.S. as the world’s largest contributor of CO2 emissions. Gerhard Berz, chief of Munich Re’s geoscience research group also stated, "The effects of China’s decisions will be felt worldwide. Within the foreseeable future, the global trend may well lead to extreme climate conditions the likes of which have not yet been experienced by man."(16)

Without curtailing emissions drastically within the next couple of years, global warming won’t only be irreversible but amplified, and the melting of the planet’s ice will continue to increase at faster rates. Rapidity in glacial meltdown will result in higher sea levels and stronger hurricanes, undulating coastal cities globally. Currently, the Association of British Insurers claims that up to 1.2 million properties are in harm’s way within Britain’s inland floodplain, and that insurance claims stemming from weather damage has exceeded $3 billion some years and may emerge as the leading agent of property damage in the country.(17) Nevertheless, that money must benefit someone (i.e. insurance companies), giving a boost to GDP somewhere, but knockin’ a blow to the quality of life for the inhabitants of the affected areas.

Desertification is also on the rise. Although China is losing much of its countryside to the Gobi Desert each year, Africa is getting hit hard and will fare worse if the global economy picks back up. Projections show that by 2025, two thirds of arable land in Africa will be swallowed up by desertification resulting in population displacement, not due to Africa’s own emissions, but directly on account of the industrialized/developing countries.

Chinese multinational corporations have spread their wings as well, maximizing their occupation in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, in search of resources to further fuel China’s economy, and are ravishing their regions in the process. China’s timber imports have more than tripled over the last ten years, and China’s demand for lumber will most likely increase by 33 percent in the following five years – China is the largest importer in the world of illegally logged timber, 50 percent of its lumber imports stem from illegal operations.(18)

At what costs will China, as an emerging economy, continue its rapacious extraction of resources before they decide enough is enough? Clearly, exhausting its own resources didn’t give any forethought to slow down. And with the precipitous rise of myriad private enterprises stockpiling remunerative gains as the result of climate-change induced disasters, who will have a voice loud enough for the world to hear and acknowledge: slow down!

Alongside desert sprawl and watershed depletion there will be a decline in food and crop yields. So far, record world prices for almost all staple foods have led to an 18 percent food cost inflation in China; and according to the U.N. Environmental Program, the planet’s water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks are in "inexorable decline."(19)

Constant perturbations to ecosystems will eventually trigger a response on a scale unimaginable, considering the tightly woven interrelations life’s complex natural communities have with each other. To approach species endangerment, land degradation, water/air pollution, as well as industrial growth at the expense of the surrounding environments without dire and heartfelt concern to halt economic exigency, is suicide.

(Un)Fixing the mistakes

Over the last 25 years, the World Bank has lent more than $34 billion dollars to China, a quarter of it allocated for transport infrastructure and fighting pollution. In 2001, the World Bank invested millions of dollars in a project to remove dangerous shoals along the Xiangjiang River in Hunan Province, creating a deeper 157 km channel to improve vessel efficiency and "significantly increase environment-friendly energy generation in the region" that will be "saving environmental pollution and cutting the incidence of energy outages."(20) Despite financial efforts to fix the environmental damage done by China’s economy, rearranging nature in the name of economic efficiency is disastrous as well as crazed and doltish – the efforts will only further exhaust a quagmire into bedlam. One might as well advocate MTR (mountain top removal) as "environmentally-friendly" based on a criterion of its efficiency. At last, China has culminated over 4,000 km of inland waterways as navigable – hooray! Right? The results are: desiccated and poisoned watersheds, and cities sinking inch by inch, as if the earth that grounds them was imbibing them.

Perhaps the benefit of free trade (that sounds evil) can be found with Europe’s Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals (REACH), a set of chemical regulation standards that has set a new benchmark in the product-manufacturing arena, one that purports to show how chemicals are controlled and how "production decisions around the world will be made from now on." In an article written in October of 2007 for Harper’s Magazine, Mark Schapiro writes:

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce had REACH translated into Mandarin within days of its passage. European consultants also traveled to China to show industry and government officials there what exporters will have to do to abide by the chemical regulations. The Europeans were willing to aid their competitors in China, with whom they have a significant trade deficit, because just about anything made in Chinese factories can end up in the hands of Europeans.(21)

Still, REACH has only aspired to some, despite its advancement. The U.S. is nefarious for its history of antagonism toward environmental and human-rights programs, in fear of new standards encumbering U.S GDP. The U.S. also waged campaigns under the Bush administration to subvert REACH’s influence in the many regions of Eastern Europe.(22) And if it weren’t for China’s acquiescence to cheap-cost production, pragmatism in efficiency, and western influence in the first place, perhaps there wouldn’t be such a loud cry of concern over the product safety of imported goods from China.

REACH does not address the concerns of crop depletion, or widespread desertification; nor does it lower emissions or troubleshoot and prepare for a rampant exodus that may potentially follow coastal city flooding or the breaking up of villages and communities. Cramming billions of dollars into China’s infrastructure through modernization programs will not ameliorate conditions either, but will only further shock the country’s morale with confusion. Alongside a diminishing countryside deprived of potable water, ushering China into modernity hastily, while simultaneously condemning them for their dereliction, is a paradoxical investment that will further cultivate and foment social unrest.

As for current climate-change policy, even if China was never exempt from the Kyoto Protocol there is question as to whether it would have made a speck of a difference. Japan, the purveyor of the treaty meant to unite the world through addressing climate change, has done only that: addressed the world of climate change, nothing more. In fact, Japan’s emissions have increased since the onset of the protocol. The protocol, which was enacted in 1997 and had called for a 6 percent decrease from 1990 emissions levels, has not achieved any progress. Japan’s emissions have risen 13 percent, and the U.S. (the largest contributor of greenhouse gases) has remained exempt (along with India and China). Any emission cuts that have been achieved have been cancelled out by China’s emissions alone.(23)

Listening to Reason

World renown scientist and father of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock disclosed to Rolling Stone online that "Our future is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail."

It should be taken with much consideration when those who have studied the planet’s ecosystems and environments for the past thirty years with diligence and ardor; and those who have examined the biosphere and atmosphere closely, postulating over the negative effects of industry and capitalism with earnest concern for the planet, have been saying all these years to slow down. It shouldn’t be taken lightly when projections point toward a steep decline of the current global economy and life, as we know it. For decades, many intellectuals specific to their fields of study in the natural sciences have cautioned the industrial world to be wary of material consumption; that there are limits to resources, as well as a holding capacity to the planet; and that unlimited economic and industrial growth is not sustainable for the future generations of people. According to statistics, data, and reports, not enough people have taken heed to this advice over the years and consumption has continued to mount.

America and other Western countries set a precedent at the dawn of industry, that with the sleight of rhetoric and cunning depraved indifference toward nature, an economy can grow large and fast; that GDP can climb parallel to poverty coupled with a decline in the quality of life (as shown with an increasing lower class that is engulfing the middle class, disproportioned by an exclusive upper class, predominant in modern society); and that somehow, someway, the voices of intelligent concern are quieted as to not interfere with the agendas of the developing nations.

China, a sovereign power perhaps as formidable as the sovereign entity of capitalism itself, is on the rise. Like any other country, China has the inherent right to strive for excellence, but if it is in the name of modern civilization, perhaps a path less traveled should have been taken, one that did not follow in the footsteps of the West, one that could have led by example.


Photo from Flickr: robertg6n1


1. Jiang Jingjing, "Wal-Mart’s China Inventory to Hit US$18b This Year." China Business Weekly 29 Nov. 2004.


2. Jason T. Shaplen and James Laney. "Washington’s Eastern Sunset; The Decline of U.S. Power in Northeast Asia." Foreign Affairs Nov./Dec. 2007. pp. 82-97.

3. Stephen Philion. "The Social Costs of Neoliberalism in China, Interview with Economist Han Deqiang." Dollars and Cents. Jul./Aug. 2007. pp. 22-35.

4. Ibid.

5. Paul Demko. "Mass Consumption." City Pages. Vol. 27. Issue 1353. 8 Nov. 2006: http://www.citypages.com/databank/27/1353/article14858.asp

6. David C. Korten. "Better Than Money." Yes! Magazine. Fall 2007. pp. 37-41

7. Elizabeth C. Economy. "The Great Leap Backward? The Costs of China’s Environmental Crisis." Foreign Affairs. Sep./Oct. 2007. pp. 38-59

8. Clifford Coonan. "China’s Boom is Killing Sea That Gives It Life, Warn Scientists." Independent News and Media Limited. 10 Mar. 2006: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines06/0310-05.htm

9. Elizabeth Economy. "The Great Leap Backward…"

10. Ibid.

11. Clifford Coonan. "China’s Boom…"

12. Ibid.

13. Hamish McRae. "The Kyoto Protocol Can Help Address Global Warming." Global Warming. Ed. Cynthia A. Bailey. Opposing Viewpoints. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2006. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Thomson Gale. Hartness Library System: http://find.galegroup.com/ovrc/infomark.do?&contentSet=GSRC&type=retrieve&tabID=T010&prodld=OVRC&docld=EJ3010222255&source=gale&srcprod=OVRC&userGroupName=vol_ccv&version=1.0

14. Thomas Land. "Helping China’s Pollution With Waterways." Contemporary Review. 279. 1630 Nov 2001: 291.4. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Thomson Gale. Hartness Library System:


15. James F. Hoge Jr. ‘Editor’s Notes.’ Foreign Affairs. Nov./Dec. 2007. p. 214

16. Thomas Land. "Helping China’s Pollution…"

17. Ibid.

18. Elizabeth Economy. "The Great Leap Backward…"

19. John Vidal. "Global Food Crisis Looms As Climate Change and Fuel Shortages Bite." The Guardian. 3 Nov. 2007: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/nov/03/food.climatechange

20. Thomas Land. "Helping China’s Pollution…"

21. Mark Schapiro. "Toxic Inaction; Why Poisonous, Unregulated Chemicals End Up In Our Blood." Harper’s Magazine. Oct. 2007. pp.78-83.

22. Ibid.

23. Alan Zarembo. "Kyoto’s Failure Haunts New U.N. Talks." Los Angeles Times; Science and Medicine. 3 Dec. 2007: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/lascikyoto3dec03,0,6581421,full.story?coll=la-home-center