Global environmental challenges
Hu’s visit is over, but China’s ecological footprint lingers
The Chinese flags have disappeared from Washington’s wide avenues after China’s President Hu Jintao’s visit this week, but one statistic is still in the air: the rapidly expanding size of the Chinese ecological footprint, compared to the huge but slowing impact U.S. consumers have on global supplies of food, water, fuel — everything, really.
China and the United States are generally considered to hold the top two spots in the world for emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases. But how do they compare when consumption of all goods is taken into account?
A report by Global Footprint Network indicates both countries are living beyond their means, ecologically speaking.
The Ecological Footprint measures the land and sea area needed to produce the resources a population consumes and absorb its carbon dioxide emissions. By this measure, it would take just under 3 billion global hectares (about 7.4 billion global acres) to produce what China’s people consume. If everybody on the planet lived as the Chinese do, it would take the resources of 1.2 Earths.
(The numbers are a bit different when focusing just on Hong Kong, where it would take 2.2 Earths to supply the world’s demand if everybody lived as people do in Hong Kong. A new report with this focus is here.)
The total U.S. ecological footprint is 2.5 billion global hectares (about 6.1 billion acres) — substantially less than China, but far higher for each individual U.S. consumer. If the whole world used as much stuff as people in the United States do, it would take five Earths to provide it.
However, the Global Footprint Network notes another difference between these two economic powers: China’s ecological footprint is growing faster than that of the United States. Between 1992 and 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available), China’s total ecological footprint grew 74 percent, more than triple the U.S. growth of 23 percent over the same time span.
“As China increases its standard of living and as its population grows, its footprint is likely to continue to expand,” the nonprofit environmental group’s Nicole Freeling said in an e-mail.
Human ecological demand first exceeded Earth’s capacity to provide and sustain itself in 1976, the network said. By 2007, the global total ecological footprint was 1.5 times the available biocapacity. That means it would take at least a year and six months for Earth to absorb the carbon dioxide emissions and regenerate the renewable resources that people used in that year.
Photo credits: REUTERS/Grace Liang (Footprints in snow-covered Tiananmen Square, March 8, 2010)
REUTERS/NASA (NASA file image, dated July 20, 1969, shows one of the first footprints of Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon)