China has outpaced the rest of the world as the largest consumer of primary materials such as fossil fuels, biomass and construction minerals.
That has created intense pressure on the country’s environment, however, China also remains among the most successful in improving resource efficiency, a new report claims. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), China’s per capita consumption of materials grew one third to over one and a half times the world’s average levels between 1970 and 2008.
UNEP’s report suggests domestic usage of natural resources increased at almost twice the rate of the whole of the Asia Pacific region due to massive investments in urban infrastructure, energy systems and manufacturing capacity. However, around 20% of the resource use in China goes towards the production of goods which are eventually consumed abroad.
The report notes if China’s most recent policy initiatives – which include targets to cut water usage and increase the up-take of non-fossil fuels – fail to accelerate resource efficiency gains, environmental pressures can be expected to rise rapidly. It states the proportion of biomass dropped from 63% to 15% between 1970 and 2008 while consumption of minerals increased from 8% to 63% and use of fossil fuels rose more than sevenfold, at an average growth of 5.3% annually.
Out of the fossil fuels, coal supply grew most rapidly, rising from 49% in 1970 to 67% in 2009 of total primary energy supply, which contributed to the fast rising carbon emissions. China is believed to emit more than four times the world’s average greenhouse gas emissions.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director said: “China has seen dramatic growth in past decades and the effect of this transition on global demand for natural resources is unprecedented.
“While that growth has lifted millions out of poverty, it has also come with rising environmental challenges linked to the extracting, processing and use of those natural resources. This report underlines that China, in common with other emerging economies, needs to make significant investments in more resource-efficient infrastructure, such as green buildings and public transport, but also in human capital and governance capacity, if a transition to a sustainable economic model is to be truly realised.”
According to a UNEP-backed study released earlier this year, China consolidated its position last year as the world’s dominant renewable energy market player – up 22% to $67 billion (£43.7bn) – largely due to a jump in solar investment.