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China and the Comfortable Road to Ruin

Are India’s and China’s means of advancement hurting their long-term development?

July 21, 2005

Are India's and China's means of advancement hurting their long-term development?

Hong Kong has always been one of my favorite cities. I like to ride the tram to Victoria Peak for the spectacular view across the harbor to Kowloon. At least I used to do this.

These days, the view is obscured by a cloud of smog that drifts in from factories in China’s neighboring Guangdong province.

In 2004, Hong Kong had 79 days over 100 (very high) on the air pollution index. Yet, Hong Kong is one of the less polluted cities in China.

Rapid economic growth has cut forest cover in northern and central China by more than half since 1985 — and the country’s deserts are growing by several hundred thousand square miles annually.

Government efforts to replant trees are proving too little, too late. The Gobi Desert, which is moving closer at a rate of two miles per year, is now less than 200 miles from Beijing.

Sometimes, in the summer, the sandstorms in Beijing make you wonder if you mistakenly got off the plane in Saudi Arabia.

But particulate levels in Beijing’s air do not come only from the Gobi. China’s auto population of ten million is growing by nearly two million a year — and it could easily double every three or four years.

Given China’s huge population, a U.S. rate of vehicle ownership would mean 600 million Chinese cars on the road — more than the total number of cars in the world in 2005.

China is already the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter. It could easily top U.S. emissions if its rate of vehicle ownership gets anywhere near the U.S. level.

As some observers have noted, “If China attempts to replicate the U.S.-style consumer economy, it will become clear that the U.S. economic model is not environmentally sustainable.”

The important point is that it would not only be unsustainable for China, it would also be unsustainable for the rest of the world.

Cars and smokestacks are just two of the factors that have made China the home of the world’s worst environmental problems.

Two-thirds of Chinese cities have air quality below World Health Organization standards — and 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, including Beijing.

China’s environmental agency calculates that living in Chinese cities does more damage to a person’s lungs than smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

The water in five of China’s largest rivers is dangerous to touch. But if you live downstream, you don’t have to worry about touching it, because the rivers dry up before they get there.

Beijing, for instance, is in real danger of simply running out of clean water. Longtime China analyst Jasper Becker says that 600 million people drink water contaminated with human and animal waste.

The country’s environmental situation is likely to get worse in the next two decades, as 300 million more Chinese are expected to join the 200 million who have already migrated from the countryside to cities.

By 2020, the environmental agency estimates that 500,000 people will die prematurely every year from bronchitis and similar illnesses, while many farmers in central China will have to abandon their land to the rapidly advancing deserts.

Moreover, environmental problems could cut as much as 10% from China’s GDP.

India’s water problems may be even worse than China’s. “Pump smashing” — one farmer destroying another’s irrigation pump — is becoming a major hazard in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Even worse, angry farmers may destroy the electric company for taking precious water to generate electricity.

By 2025, India will have another 400 million people. Three-fourths of the population of about 1.5 billion people will be living in areas with less than 264,000 gallons of water per person per year — the amount considered essential to sustain economic development.

Here, as elsewhere, water is both a cause and an effect of a larger environmental disaster. As in China, the loss of half of India’s forest cover has resulted in flooding, loss of water retention, erosion of topsoil and further pollution of drinking water.

Up to 70% of people who contract serious illnesses in India do so as the result of contact with polluted water.

India’s air pollution is nearly as bad as China’s. According to the Center for Science and Environment, deaths due to air pollution in 33 Indian cities for which air quality measures are available rose 30% in just four years, from 2000 to 2004.

As in China, coal is the dominant fuel, and India is the world’s third-largest producer after China and the United States. The combination of coal and untreated industrial smoke creates hazardous air pollution problems.

It also means that Indian greenhouse gas emissions are rising rapidly toward the Chinese and U.S. levels.

Because India has one of the highest levels of carbon intensity per dollar of GDP, its emissions could go even higher.

All of this begs the question of whether the world can sustain Chinese and Indian modernization along the lines of the U.S. consumer model. It is a question of critical importance for both of these countries — and the world.

Adapted from the book, “Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East” by Clyde Prestowitz. Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with BasicBooks, a member of the Perseus Books Group ( All rights reserved.