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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 10:07 GMT
China emerges as global consumer
Chinese factory
China has "eclipsed" the US as a consumer nation
China has overtaken the US in the consumption of basic agricultural and industrial goods, a survey has found.

With a booming economy and 1.3bn people, it is now the world's largest consumer of grain, meat, coal and steel, said the Earth Policy Institute.

But China's insatiable demands are putting ever more pressure on the country's natural resources.

Air and water pollution are already serious problems, and there is talk of a looming ecological crisis.

China is well ahead of the US in the consumption of goods such as television sets, refrigerators and mobile phones, according to the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.

However, per capita consumption in China - the world's most populous country - remains far below that of the US.

According to the report:

  • 64m tons of meat were consumed in China in 2004 compared to 38m tons in the US

  • 258m tons of steel were used in China in 2003 compared to 104m in the US

  • China's factories and homes burned 40% more coal than in the US

  • The number of PCs in China is doubling every 28 months.

The latest official figures for the Chinese economy, the sixth-largest in the world, show it is growing at an even faster rate than expected.

It expanded by 9.5% in 2004, its highest rate for eight years, the figures show.

"China's eclipse of the United States as a consumer nation should be seen as another milestone along the path of its evolution as a world economic leader," Lester Brown, the institute's president, said.

"China is no longer just a developing country," he said. "It is an emerging economic superpower, one that is writing economic history".

Illegal timber

The report said China's massive appetite for goods ranging from grain to platinum had placed it "at the centre of the world raw materials economy".

Smoke belches from a chimney in heavy fog on December 14, 2004 in Beijing, China.
60% of Chinese cities have serious air pollution problems

One of these raw materials is wood - and the illegal trade in stolen timber is stripping Asia of its last substantial forests, according to a report by the US and UK-based Environmental Investigations Agency and Indonesian campaigning group Telapak.

Indonesia is now suffering the fastest rate of deforestation in the world, losing a wooded area the size of Switzerland every year.

According to investigators, Chinese factories process one stolen Indonesian log every minute of every working day.

Deforestation is not the only unwanted consequence of China's huge consumption of natural materials, says the BBC's Louisa Lim in Beijing.

Coal-fired power plants supply much of the country's energy and according to government estimates, 60% of Chinese cities have serious air pollution problems, she says.

The Kyoto Protocol considers China a developing nation, and it is currently exempt from cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Experts also say that more than three-quarters of the water flowing through China's cities is unsuitable for drinking because of pollution from industrial waste, according to our correspondent.

Scores of rivers have dried up and water tables are getting ever lower.

An official from the Chinese environmental watchdog, Panyue, said the nation's resources and its environment had already reached the limits of their capacity to cope.

Initial moves are now being taken to enforce environmental laws, but moves in this direction could ignite new tensions between government agencies and big business.

Why China is now the world's biggest consumer

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