China, India, and the 'State of the World'

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by: Joel Makower

Worldwatch's venerable State of the World annual is just out, and the 2006 edition zeroes in on China and India — and the threats and opportunities they present to sustainability.

The litany of bad news has been well told. As Worldwatch puts it "If China and India were to consume resources and produce pollution at the current U.S. per-capital level, it would require two planet Earths just to sustain their two economies."

Among the realities: China has only 8% of the world's fresh water to meet the needs of 22% of the world's people. . . . China and India have both just started to build what are slated to be two of the largest automobile industries in the world . . . If Chinese per-capital grain consumption were to double to roughly European levels, China would require the equivalent of nearly 40% of today's global grain harvest.

And so it goes.

What could the good news possibly be? Turns out there's plenty. For starters, both China and India committed during 2005 to accelerate the development of renewable energy sources. India plans to increase renewables' share of power from 5% to as much as 25%, while China's new energy law will help jumpstart wind power, biofuels, and other renewable fuels.

China's automobile industry has adopted Europe's environmental standards, which are tougher than those in the U.S., part of that country's efforts to promote energy efficiency. China has achieved status as the world leader in producing and installing compact fluorescent light bulbs. India already has the fourth-largest wind power industry, while China and India are the third and fourth largest ethanol producers, respectively.

And then there are leapfrogging technologies and systems that could head off some of the more dire predictions about the development world's environmental footprint. One example is in transportation: A growing number of people in China now argue that an automobile-based transportation system simply is not capable of providing mass mobility to over a billion people without destroying resources that are required to meet other human needs.

In response, the Ministry of Construction has recently declared that public transport is a national priority and is promoting Bus Rapid Transit, an ingenious system that combines the speed of a subway with the affordability of a bus. First developed in Curitiba, Brazil in the 1990s, the idea is simple: dedicate selected lanes or roadways to bus traffic, have passengers prepay their fares for quick boarding (as on a subway), and give bus drivers control of stoplights so that the bus has a green light along its route. The result is the virtual equivalent of a subway system at a fraction of the capital cost.

Where this has been tried in China, such as in the southwestern province of Yunnan, car traffic has fallen by 20% and bus ridership during rush hour has jumped fivefold.

But let's be clear: State of the World 2006 does not make for joyous reading. The world's primary watersheds are being converted at an alarming rate to agricultural or urban-industrial uses. Mercury poisoning in developing countries is on the rise. Hundreds of nanotechnology products are entering the marketplace, with thousands more in the pipeline, while their effects on human health and the environment remain unknown and unpredictable. Factory farming is now the fastest-growing means of animal production in the world, with meat consumption rising fastest in the developing world. China now leads the world in production and consumption of meat.

It's a sobering perspective, but Worldwatch's talented team of writers makes it compelling reading nonetheless.

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