China: Mind-numbing damage

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It's the nightmare scenario that environmentalists dread. What happens when China's 1.3 billion people (and counting) get the cars and air conditioners that people in the West take for granted?

Whither the planet when China's income per capita, currently about $1,000 (£570), starts approaching the UK's $26,000? Once the preserve of science-fiction, this scenario now looms alarmingly real.

China's economy is steaming ahead at a rate of 9 per cent a year, and doubling in less than every 10 years. On current trends, the Chinese - one-fifth of the world's population - will be within reach of the coveted Western lifestyle in a generation.

And why shouldn't they have a slice of the world's crumbling economic pie? Because, say environmental campaigners, if they continue to follow the Western consumer model, we will all go up in flames.

The damage is already mind-numbing: China has 16 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities, and for 70 per cent of its energy needs it depends on coal, helping make it the planet's second largest producer of greenhouse gases.

And despite consuming more oil (6 million barrels a day) than any other country except the US (20 million) it is gasping for energy: blackouts are common and power generation is set to fall short by up to 23,000 megawatts this year. In Shanghai, Buicks, Volkswagens and Toyotas are pushing the famous bicycles off the streets faster than fuel can fill their tanks: oil use doubled between 1994 and 2004.

Environmentalists want China to do something no developing country its size has managed: leap-frog the smokestack phase of development to clean economy. But they acknowledge that it won't be easy.