An ominous sign of the danger is given in a groundbreaking report from Greenpeace, published today, which maintains that China is now by far the world's biggest driver of rainforest destruction. The report documents the vast deforestation driven by the soaring demands of China's enormous timber trade - the world's largest - as the country's headlong economic development sucks in ever-more amounts of the earth's natural resources.
Citing figures from the International Tropical Timber Organisation, the Greenpeace study says that nearly five out of every 10 tropical hardwood logs shipped from the world's threatened rainforests are now heading for China - more than to any other destination.
Yet deforestation is only one of the threats to the planet posed by an economy of 1.3 billion people that has now overtaken the United States as the world's leading consumer of four out of the five basic food, energy and industrial commodities - grain, meat, oil, coal and steel. China now lags behind the US only in consumption of oil - and it is rapidly catching up.
Because of their increasing reliance on coal-fired power stations to provide their energy, the Chinese are firmly on course to overtake the Americans as the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and thus become the biggest contributors to global warming and the destabilisation of the climate. If they remain uncontrolled, the growth of China's carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years will dwarf any cuts in CO2 that the rest of the world can make.
Even that, however, is not the ultimate threat from an economy which is growing at a rate the world has never seen before. According to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, the leading American environmental analyst, China's scarcely imaginable growth in the coming years means that the world's population will simply run up against the limits of the planet's natural resources sooner than anyone imagines.
If growth continues at 8 per cent a year, Mr Brown said, by 2031 China's population, likely to be 1.45 billion on current UN predictions, will have an income per person equivalent to that of the US today. He said: "China's grain consumption will then be two-thirds of the current grain consumption for the entire world. If it consumes oil at the same rate as the US today, the Chinese will be consuming 99 million barrels a day - and the whole world is currently producing 84 million barrels a day, and will probably not produce much more.
"If it consumes paper at the same rate we do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world's forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people - as the US does today - they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars, compared to the current world fleet of 800 million. They would have to pave over an area equivalent to the area they have planted with rice today, just to drive and park them."
Mr Brown, who has been tracking and documenting the world's major environmental trends for 30 years, went on: "The point of these conclusions is simply to demonstrate that the western economic model is not going to work for China. All they're doing is what we've already done, so you can't criticise them for that. But what you can say is, it's not going to work. And if it doesn't work for China, by 2031 it won't work for India, which by then will have an even larger population, nor for the other three billion people in the developing countries.
"And in some way it will not work for the industrialised countries either, because in the incredibly integrated global economy, we all depend on the same oil and the same grain.
"The bottom line of this analysis is that we're going to have to develop a new economic model. Instead of a fossil-fuel based, automobile-centred, throw-away economy we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. "If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to have that. Otherwise civilisation will collapse."
The Greenpeace report is one of the first major indictments of the catastrophic environmental effects the great Chinese industrial behemoth is starting to have on the rest of the world.
The ecological damage that China's breakneck industrialisation is having on the country itself has been widely recognised. In an interview earlier this year, China's deputy environment minister, Pan Yue, said five of the 10 most polluted cities worldwide are in China; acid rain is falling on one-third of the country; half of the water in its seven largest rivers is "completely useless"; a quarter of China's citizens lack access to clean drinking water; one-third of the urban population is breathing polluted air; and less than a fifth of the rubbish in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable way. But China's malign environmental "footprint" on other countries has been less widely reported.
John Sauven, forest campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: "Western politicians, who think only in terms of gross domestic product, have seen China as some sort of economic wonderland. Tony Blair went to China with British businessmen in September and said how he wanted a slice of the cake. But the growth figures mask an environmental catastrophe. The Chinese are ripping the heart out of the world's irreplaceable rainforests to make cheap products like plywood for Western consumer markets."
The Greenpeace report details how, with incredible speed, China has become the world's largest plywood producer and exporter. Its export market has grown from less than one million cubic metres per annum in 1998 to nearly 11 million cubic metres in 2004.
China banned logging in large areas of its own natural forest in 1998 after catastrophic floods, themselves a direct result of deforestation, killed thousands of people. "This ban, coupled with massive growth in Chinese timber processing capacity and a liberalisation of trade barriers, led China to look overseas in its hunger for timber," says the Greenpeace report.
In one area of China investigated by the group, there were no fewer than 9,000 plywood mills taking in vast numbers of ancient hardwood trees from rainforests in countries such as Papua New Guinea, which are used merely to make plywood panels. Greenpeace contends that many of these trees, if not the majority, have been illegally logged.
The report, entitled Partners in Crime, does not blame only China - it accuses timber barons in rainforest countries of corruption in illegally supplying the wood, and builders' merchants and DIY outlets in Britain of culpable negligence in supplying plywood without establishing its origin. Chinese hardwood plywood imports to the UK have gone from 1 per cent of the total in 2001 to 30 per cent this year.
Greenpeace wants the EU, and failing that, Britain alone, to outlaw the import of timber which has not clearly been legally logged. At the moment there are no restrictions on illegally logged timber coming into Britain.
China - growing at nearly 10% a year - already consumes more grain, meat, coal and steel than the United States
China's population will grow from 1.3 billion to 1.45 billion in 26 years - when per capita income will be equal to that of the US today
On current trends, China will by 2031 be consuming 99 million barrels of oil per day. Total world production today is only 84 million bpd
China is already the biggest driver of rainforest destruction, says Greenpeace. Half of all rainforest logs head for China
By 2025, China will overtake the US as the top emitter of the greenhouse gases causing global warming
By 2031, China would have 1.1 billion cars if it matches current US trends - bigger than the current world fleet of 800 millionReuse content