China's Growing Impact on the Earth China already uses more grain, meat, steel and coal than the United States. And experts say that by 2031, China will need more oil than the world produces. Can the earth handle China's increasing appetite for natural resources?
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China's Growing Impact on the Earth

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China's Growing Impact on the Earth

China's Growing Impact on the Earth

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From NPR News, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for the rest of this hour, a look at the intersection of economics and the environment and what it means for our planet. But first, we're going to give you a little quiz. See if you can guess which country I'm talking about.

It consumes more of the world's grain, steel and meat than any other country. They mine and burn a quarter of the world's coal. Six thousand mine workers were killed in their mines in 2004. Their military budget is third behind the US and Russia, and they have plans to put a probe on the moon in 2007. According to one estimate, about 81 percent--eight out of 10--toys sold here in the US are made there, and about 80 percent of all Christmas tree ornaments and decorations sold around the world are made there.

Well, you probably have it by now. I'm talking, of course, about China. And according to my next guest, China's extraordinary economic growth is going to stretch our already stressed natural systems past the breaking point. He says that at current growth rates, by 2031--that's about 25 years from now--China will have an appetite for oil larger than what the whole world currently produces.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? My next guests believes that China is just the tip of the iceberg of a global economy that is outgrowing the capacity of our Earth to support it, leading to a possible collapse of our modern way of life. Lester Brown is the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. His latest book is "Plan B, 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble." He joins us from our studios in Washington.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. LESTER BROWN (Earth Policy Institute): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Doesn't sound very optimistic once again, as you weren't last time you were here.

Mr. BROWN: Actually, there are a lot of things we can do to put the world economy on a sustainable path, but it's not going to be easy. It's going to take a lot of restructuring, but we have the technologies needed to do it. I mean, as you well know, for decades now, ecologists have been saying that we need to restructure the world economy in order to protect the natural support systems, to stabilize climate, to deal with the sorts of problems that Professor Blaustein was describing a few minutes ago. But, unfortunately, there haven't been enough people convinced of the need to do this. Now what's happening in China is beginning to convince economists that we're going to have to make some changes, big time.

I mean, perhaps the most important contribution of "Plan B, 2.0," at least according to the early readers, is the simple calculations on China. First of all, China now consumes more of the basic resources than the US does. I mean, ever since you and I can remember, we've been saying that the US, 5 percent of the world's people, consumes a third or maybe even 40 percent of the world's resources, and that was true for a long time, but it no longer is. China now consumes more grain, more meat, more coal, more steel. Among the major commodities, the only one the US still leads in is oil.

But the fact that China has now overtaken us in total consumption of these basic commodities gives us license to ask the next question, which is: What if they catch up to us in consumption per person? And if the Chinese economy continues to grow at 8 percent a year, a bit slower than in recent years, then by 2031 income per person in China will be the same as in the US today. And then, if we assume similar consumption patterns, then we have a real eye opener. We have a country that will be--have 1.45 billion people, that will be consuming the equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain harvest. Their paper consumption, at US per capita levels, would be double current world production. There go the world's forests.

Or we look at automobiles, for example. If China one day has three cars for every four people, as the US does, they will have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars. The world currently has 800 million cars. They would have to pave, for roads, highways, parkings lots, an area comparable to the area they now plant in rice. Beyond that, they would consume 99 million barrels of oil a day. The world currently produces 84 million barrels a day and will probably never produce much more than that.

What China is teaching us is that the Western economic model, the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy, is not going to work for China. If it does...

FLATOW: Do they realize this?

Mr. BROWN: They're beginning to sense it, and I base that partly on discussions with senior officials in China. But the--it won't work for China, nor will it work for India, which, by 2031, will have a population even larger than that of China. And it won't work for the other three billion people in the developing countries who are also dreaming the American Dream.

And, perhaps most importantly, in a global economy, in an integrated global economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil, iron ore, forest products, etc., it won't work for us, either. And that's the message of the book: the need to restructure the global economy so that economic progress can continue.

FLATOW: And how do you--as an architect of this restructuring, how do you see it being restructured?

Mr. BROWN: Well, instead of being fossil-fuel-based, it would be powered by renewable sources of energy. Instead of being automobile centered, transport systems would be much more diverse. Instead of a throwaway economy, we would have a comprehensive reuse-recycle economy. We see glimpses of this new economy now emerging in various parts of the world. We see it in the wind farms of western Europe, the solar rooftops of Japan, the reforested mountains of Korea, the growing fleet of gas-electric hybrid automobiles in the United States, the bicycle-friendly streets of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

So it's beginning to emerge, and perhaps the most exciting single development now is what's happening with wind energy. In Europe, wind farms now supply the electricity needs, the residential electricity needs, of 40 million Europeans. By 2020, that's projected to hit 195 million, which will be half of Europe's population. Europe is, quite literally, leading the world into the age of wind now.

In this country, we have an enormous supply of wind energy which could--which is being harnessed, but not fast enough. Worldwide it's growing about 30 percent a year; this past year in the US it grew by about 35 percent. But it's going to grow even faster, probably, this year, particularly with some of the major new companies, large corporations in the business, like GE, which came in two years ago. Goldman Sachs has now bought a wind company. It's a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs, and they have some 5,000 megawatts of wind energy either under construction or in the planning stage. I mean, that's equivalent to, say, 17 typical coal-fired power plants around the country.

So things are beginning to move, but still not fast enough.

FLATOW: Yeah. I just was reading about the Whole Foods Company making a major investment in wind power. All of their stores will be using wind-generated electricity.

Mr. BROWN: Interesting. It's also interesting that a lot of utilities and the--a lot of the utilities have been offering their consumers electricity from renewable sources, most importantly from wind energy, but charging a premium--5, 10 or 15 percent above the price for their other sources of electricity. But that's now beginning to change, because with natural gas prices going up so fast, the price of electricity generated from natural gas is now moving above the cost of wind power. And so some companies are now trying to lock in long-term contracts for wind energy, because they know it's going to be one of the cheapest sources of electricity available in the future.

FLATOW: But how will wind energy, for example, satisfy China's desire to, you know, populate the country with automobiles, or at least even power them, if they desire to do that?

Mr. BROWN: Let me use the US to illustrate that point, because the US and China both have enormous amounts of wind energy. The exciting thing is that we have advances in technology, in the design of gas-electric hybrids and in wind turbines, that set the foundation, the technological foundation, for an entirely new automotive energy economy. If in this country, either for reasons of climate stabilization or oil insecurity, we decided that over the next decade we would shift entirely to gas-electric hybrids, with an efficiency approaching that of today's Toyota Prius, we could cut our gasoline use in half. If...

FLATOW: But isn't that going to take a policy decision, a Jimmy Carter-like, you know, presidential effort? Or in China, they--you know, a political decision in China or in India or these other countries to go ahead and do those things, to spur them on?

Mr. BROWN: It probably will take some leadership, but the market is already beginning to drive some of these processes. Once we get gas-electric hybrids, then we have another option, which is to add a second storage battery and a plug-in capacity. Then you can plug your car in at night when you have--while you're sleeping, and we can do our short-distance driving--the daily commute, grocery shopping, etc.--we can do that all with electricity.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number, talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble." "Plan B, 2.0," actually. It's sober reading, and if you know Lester Brown's work, like we've been talking about over the years, you know, it's really interesting reading.

Let's go to the phone. Let's go to Hugh in Oakland. Hi, Hugh.

HUGH (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine. Go ahead.

HUGH: I'm calling--traditionally, in an international agreement, US and other world leaders, even progressive European leaders, have not wanted to include the environment as part of international accords. What has often happened, as an indirect result of this, is that industries which have moved to China and might have been regulated here--for example, textiles and pollution coming out of textile mills, as well as chemical companies--get moved over to China, where we now buy our products from, and there's less or no regulation. And I wanted to find out whether it's--you know, what the author thinks about whether these--the environment should not be now included in some of these international accords.

Mr. BROWN: Well, the environment is included in some, but not nearly enough. I mean, the Kyoto protocol was an interesting example of an agreement that's focused entirely on climate change, which is probably far and away the number-one environmental issue that we're facing. But...

HUGH: I guess specifically what I'm talking about is international trade accords, which affect commerce, not only environmental accords.

Mr. BROWN: Yes, good point. There's no question but that some companies have been moving to China not only because of cheap labor but because of either lax--either the lack of environmental requirements or lax enforcement of those requirements. And what that's now translating into is an environmental nightmare for the Chinese in terms of both air pollution and water pollution, and we're probably going to see a lot more examples of leaks of the sort that developed on the Songhua River in the north of China back around Thanksgiving time, when a large amount of benzene was discharged into the river. And that affected not only the Chinese downstream, but eventually the Russians, as well, as the river made its way toward the sea.

FLATOW: Thank you. Yeah, we're talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B, 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble" on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

There was news this week--I think it was yesterday that California announced a new initiative for solar power in the state with the goal being to make California a world leader in solar power. We see lots of other states themselves taking initiatives to try to work on their own where they feel the federal government is falling behind. New York sometimes follows the environmental laws or trying to follow California with, you know, car regulations for miles per gallon or tailpipe emissions. Why is it that California is always in the front of these things?

Mr. BROWN: I don't know. I've often thought about that. I mean, you start with Europe and then you come to the East Coast of the United States, which is much more flexible and sort of cutting edge, and then you cross the continent to California and then you're really on the cutting edge.


Mr. BROWN: I think it's partly because it's a newer society. It doesn't have all the tradition and so forth that's in others.

But one of the most interesting things happening in this country now is not only these state initiatives that you mentioned--and I think the California Solar Initiative is an important one--but there are 180 mayors, including mayors of the largest cities in the country like Los Angeles and New York, who are supporting the Kyoto protocol, who signed on to support it. And I find this interesting because it is, in effect, a grassroots political revolution when mayors around the country of both parties--this is a bipartisan effort--are taking over responsibilities that traditionally have belonged in Washington. In effect, they're filling the vacuum that exists in Washington now on climate policy.

FLATOW: But as you say, if China and India are going to swamp the US in 25 years in terms of leadership, isn't it just as important or more important for these countries to, quote, "get the message" and move toward more energy efficiency and alternative renewable energies ...(unintelligible)?

Mr. BROWN: There's no question about that, and we're beginning to see some of that in these countries now. I think the Chinese, with their serious pollution problems, are beginning to realize that one of the best investments they can make is in energy efficiency, for example. They have been surprisingly lax and uninterested in energy efficiency compared with, say, the Japanese, which are--a country which is a neighbor. And they're beginning to see not only the cost of the energy itself, but the environmental fallout from using so much energy.

China is now just beginning to mount a major, potentially massive effort to develop its wind resources, and this I find encouraging. India's actually well along with wind. I think it now ranks maybe fourth or fifth in the world in its wind-generating capacity, and one of the major international companies in this field is now an Indian company.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, we're going to have to take a short break and come right back and talk more with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B, 2.0 (pronounced two-dot-zero) or 2.0 (pronounced two-point-zero)"-whichever you wish--"Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble." He'll be here to talk with us.

Also, we're going to change gears a little bit. We'll have Lester Brown stay with us, and also talk a bit about AIDS in China and HIV infection spreading rapidly around that country. So stay with us. We'll be right back to take more of your calls after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.


FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about China's future and the implications for the environment with my guest Lester Brown, president and founder of the Earth Policy Institute. His new book is called "Plan B, 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble." Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Lester, you make an interesting point in your book about what might happen if we shift from fossil fuels to other grain-based fuels like ethanol. They would be more pressure to use food for fuel. We would let people starve that way.

Mr. BROWN: One of the consequences of rising auto prices that we've always worried about is the effect on food production costs, and that's a legitimate concern for sure. But what we're also seeing when oil prices get up to $40 a barrel, or over $60 barrel where they are now, is that it suddenly becomes very profitable to convert agricultural commodities into automotive fuel. We see this with ethanol distilleries, we see it with biodiesel refineries. And it's an interesting situation because the world price of oil will become the support price not only for farm commodities, but it will also establish the minimum price for food, because if at any time the fuel value of a commodity is greater than the food value, it will be converted into fuel. In effect, we're setting the stage for competition between supermarkets and service stations.

Up until a few years ago, the only important group of buyers in world commodity markets were those who were buying for food processors, who would take the agriculture commodities and convert them into products to go on supermarket shelves. Now we have a second group, and this is group is buying for fuel producers. We see them in Europe particularly with biodiesel, in this country with ethanol. We used 34 million tons of grain last year, enough to feed a hundred million people, for producing ethanol. In Brazil, ethanol production is growing very rapidly--by leaps and bounds, in fact--because ethanol produced from sugarcane is actually cheaper than gasoline produced from oil at $60 a barrel. So we're seeing a fuzzing of the line between the food economy and the fuel economy, and dealing with higher food prices, if oil prices stay high, is going to be one of the big political challenges in the years ahead.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking this hour about China's future and the future impact they will have on the rest of the world and implications for the environment with my guest Lester Brown, author of "Plan B, 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble."

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