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Population and the Sustainable Development of Resources

Resources can be understood as all valuable materials that can be found in nature and human society, including natural resources and social resources. Natural resources exist on the surface of, and inside, the earth, including renewal energies such as sunlight, wind and tide. Social resources in their broad sense include human resources, technology, management and information.

China has always been known as a country vast in area, rich in resources and populous. But a careful analysis should be made in this regard. Covering 9.6 million square km, China is second after Russia and Canada in the world in land area. China is indeed rich in resources. Farmland in the country totals 96.85 million hectares, fourth biggest in the world; grassland totals 224.67 million hectares, th ; proven third in the world; forests cover 115.33 million hectares, 7 iron ore reserves reach 49.6 billion tons, third; and phosphate ore reserves amount to 13.35 billion tons, second in the world. The country also has considerable amounts of other resources such as fresh water, petroleum, natural gas and copper. Of more than 160 mineral resources, more than 150 with proven reserves have been found in China. And the country has all climatic zones. It has areas below sea level as well as the tallest peak in the world, which rises 8,848 meters above sea level. Not many other countries in the world have such diverse conditions.

At the same time, however, China suffers from shortages of natural resources. And this is reflected in absolute shortage and relative shortage. First of all, the absolute amount of natural resources supplies is inadequate, and this is closely connected with the country’s big population. For example, China’s cultivated land accounts for only 7% of the world’s total, whereas its population makes up 21% of the world’s total. Secondarily, there are relative shortages of a structural nature. This is reflected in three aspects: first, some important resources are inadequate, for example, reserves of petroleum, natural gas, copper and gold are not adequate. Second, a structural shortage of same-type resources. For example, in fossil fuel resources, the proportion of petroleum and natural gas, better energy resources than coal, is relatively low, whereas that of coal is high. And third, a structural shortage in terms of development conditions and cost. For example, the size of China’s grassland ranks third in the world, but it is distributed mostly in dry, semi-dry and high altitude areas, where grass quality is poor and per-square-unit grazing capacity is low. Another example: some mineral resources are buried deep, or are mixed with one another, making mining and smelting difficult and costly.

In per-capita terms, shortages are more serious. At present, China’s per-capita forest area is less than one-sixth of the world average, water resources less than one-third, and grassland less than one- half. The population’s pressure on resources is very heavy. Such pressure comes not only from low per-capita share of resources but also from “weighted effect” of a growing population on resources consumption. Simply put, as productivity goes up and people’s living standard improves, people tend to consume more resources. During the 1960-1985 period, the world’s population grew from 3 billion to 4.8 billion, up 60%; during the same period, energy consumption in the world grew 130%, more than twice the rate of population growth. The reason is that during the period per-capita energy consumption was up 45%. Consumer spending is not high in China but it is one of the countries with the fastest growth in consumer spending in the last two decades. Rising incomes for urban and rural residents have led to increased consumer spending, as has urbanization and changes in people’s spending mode. As a result, growth in resources consumption in the country is faster than population growth. In the 21st century, consumer spending is expected to increase further, 21 making resources shortage even more acute.

Faced with an ever more acute contradiction between population growth and a shortage of resources, people need first of all to have a full understanding of the scarcity of resources. Non-renewable resources, once used up, are gone forever. Some resources have given us the “yellow-card” already. For renewable resources such as farmland, forests and pastureland, if the speed of renewal is not fast enough to meet the need of a growing population, shortage will become more acute. Second, it is necessary to save resources. This includes raising the utilization rate of natural resources and achieving economic growth through better management and technology rather than the addition of facilities. Third, it is necessary to establish a relevant management mechanism to enforce a rational utilization of resources, penalize resources wasters and define proprietary rights of resources. An Outline of the Tenth Five-year Plan approved by the Ninth National People’s Congress sets the principle of “saving and protecting resources and realizing their permanent continuous utilization.” The outline plan sets concrete goals for important resources. For example, it sets effective utilization rate for irrigation water at 0.45 and industrial water repeat utilization rate at 60% for 2005. The plan sets an additional water supply of 40 billion cubic meters nationwide during the Tenth Five-year Plan period (2001- 2005). The outline plan also calls for protecting farmland, increasing reclamation of land used in urban, rural and mining areas, and strengthening anti-fire measures for forests, protection for grassland and administration over mineral resources and the recycling of waste materials. These measures are conducive to the achievement of resources sustainable development.


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