China's pollution nightmare is now everyone's pollution nightmare
The environmental disaster springs largely from its emulation of the American way of life – so let's set a better example.
The emergence of China as a dominant economic power is an epochal event, occasioning the most massive and rapid redistribution of the earth's resources in human history. The country has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism.Skip to next paragraph
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The catch is that China has become not just the world's manufacturer but its despoiler, on a scale as monumental as its economic expansion. A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by lightning or mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities.
Meanwhile, roughly 70 percent of the world's discarded computers and electronic equipment ends up in China, where it is scavenged for usable parts and then abandoned, polluting soil and groundwater with toxic metals. If unchecked, such devastation will not just put an abrupt end to China's economic growth, but, in concert with other environmentally heedless nations (in particular, the US, India, and Brazil), will cause mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout the world.
The process is already under way. Acid rain caused by China's sulfur-dioxide emissions severely damages forests and watersheds in Korea and Japan and impairs air quality in the US. Every major river system flowing out of China is threatened with one sort of cataclysm or another. The surge in untreated waste and agricultural runoff pouring into the Yellow and China Seas has caused frequent fish die-offs, and overfishing is endangering many ocean species.
The growing Chinese taste for furs and exotic foods and pets is devastating neighboring countries' populations of everything from gazelles to wolves, and turtles to parrots, while its appetite for shark fin soup is causing drastic declines in shark populations throughout the oceans. According to a study published in Science in March 2007, the absence of the oceans' top predators is causing a resurgence of skates and rays, which are in turn destroying scallop fisheries along America's Eastern Seaboard. Enthusiasm for traditional Chinese medicine is causing huge declines in populations of hundreds of animals – including tigers, pangolins, and sea horses. Seeking oil, timber, and other natural resources, China is building massive roads, bridges, and dams throughout Africa, often disregarding international environmental and social standards.
China has also depended on imports of illegally cut wood in becoming the world's wood workshop, supplying oblivious consumers in the US and Europe with furniture, flooring, and plywood. Chinese wood manufacturers have already consumed the natural forests of Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, and at current rates will swallow the forests of Indonesia, Burma, Papua New Guinea, and the vast Russian Far East within two decades. Most of these forests are formally protected by law or regulation, but corruption and ineffectual enforcement have fostered a flourishing illegal trade.
China has probably already overtaken the US as the world's leading emitter of CO2, and the country's ecosystems are displaying climate change's consequences: Arid northern China is drying out, the wet south is seeing more and more flooding, and, according to a June 2007 Greenpeace report, 80 percent of the Himalayan glaciers that feed Asia's mightiest rivers could disappear by 2035. Such a development would jeopardize hundreds of millions of people who depend on the rivers for their livelihood.