Hu’s visit ends, but China’s ecological footprint lingers

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 US consumers have on global supplies of food, water, fuel–everything, really.

China and the US 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.

Ecological footprints measure 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 total US ecological footprint is 2.5 billion global hectares (about 6.1 billion acres)–substantially less than China, but far higher per individual US consumer. If the whole world used as much stuff as people in the United States, 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 US. 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 US 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 sustain itself in 1976, the network said. By 2007, the global total ecological footprint was 1.5 times the available bio-capacity. That means it would take at least a year and six months for the Earth to absorb the carbon dioxide emissions and regenerate the renewable resources that people used in that year.

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