It's a depressing task to monitor the state of the world's environmental degradation and track pending threats to the ability of our planet to sustain life. But the folks at the Worldwatch Institute, an independent environmental think-tank based in Washington, D.C., have been keeping their chins up and braving the job since 1975.
Their yearly State of the World reports are translated into over 20 languages and look at such things as the safeguarding of freshwater ecosystems, natural disasters and their relationship to peacemaking, the nanotechnology industry, and the global meat industry.
The focus of this year's collection is on China and India's twin rise in the global economy and the expected impact on global sustainability. Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and the Environment in New Delhi, quotes Mahatma Gandhi in her foreword to the yearbook:
Years before India became independent, Gandhi was asked a simple question: would he like free India to be as developed as the country of its colonial masters, Britain? No, said Gandhi, stunning his interrogator, who argued that Britain was the model to emulate. Gandhi replied: If it took Britain the rape of half the world to be where it is, how many worlds would India need?
North America, the EU and Japan have created a resource-intensive development model that sacrifices people's ability to breathe the air, drink the water, and live on the land. It's nowhere near sustainable, but it's the model of choice in the global economy, and the Indian and Chinese governments are forging ahead largely unchecked. Earlier this month, India's environmental minister told Reuters that India would accept help to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions but would not be forced into cuts. China is expanding its navy to help secure sea lanes forPersian Gulf oil.
The environmental effects of such decisions are already evident. In 2005, China's deputy minister of construction said that more than a hundred of his country's biggest cities could soon face a water crisis. Since 1998, the Chinese government has banned forest cutting after floods displaced millions of people. Now, China is turning to countries like Indonesia and Myanmar, which are already seriously deforested, for their forest products. Deserts are encroaching upon urban China, with dust storms threatening to disrupt China's coming-out party at the 2008 Olympics.
Energy-wise, China currently uses one-fifteenth, and India one-thirtieth, of U.S. oil consumption, but if both countries approach only half of the U.S. level per person over the coming decades, India and China alone would be using 100 million barrels of oil per day. (Total global consumption in 2005: 85 million barrels per day.) An all-out exploitation of coal, by either country, to bridge the gap to a new generation of nuclear plants, could push the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above 400 parts per million, where we run the risk of runaway heating. Currently, only the high price of oil is poised to delay the pace of expansion.
But it's not all doom and gloom. The people of China and India are somewhat more interested in protecting their environments than their governments are. In September 2004, nearly 70 Indian environmental organizations and campaigners launched a nation-wide drive to pressure the government to adhere to environmental standards before approving projects that damage the country's fragile ecology. India is also home to the largest wind-power company in the developing world. The book devotes a chapter to the emerging environmental civil society in China. China's new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law is also having an impact. EIA reports need to be published and available for public comment âe" in January 2005, 30 large construction projects were suspended, because they had not developed proper EIA reports.
Worldwatch looks at the big picture âe" the world as a world, not a collection of countries. A transnational view, along with transnational collaborations, are key to overcoming transnational problems such as the resource demands of developed and developing nations.
Worldwatch itself has partnered with the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute to create a joint news service, with about ten news reports per month, to monitor ongoing environmental changes in China (in agriculture, energy, health, water, and population).
For our part, we'd better step up the healing of the Earth and clean up our own act if the planet is to sustain any more Western-style development. (Canadians, remember, are among the worst energy-guzzlers anywhere.) After all, we've had our turn at making a mess of things.
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