China’s use of natural resources from the perspective of the flow of materials

The environmental problems and resource problems that have emerged in the course of social and economic development are at heart an issue of what could be called ‘materials metabolism.’ Economic development requires material inputs. The greater the input quantity becomes, the greater the ‘digestion’ of natural resources, and the greater the emitting of waste products. Pressures on the environment increase as a result. Analysis of materials flows is one method of calculation that is based on a balance of the quantities of materials. This method can trace materials from the natural world through harvesting or exploiting and then into the economic systems of humankind. As they go through economic activity at different periods and regions, materials can also ultimately return to the natural environment, creating a complete process. By analyzing the total quantities and structure of inputs, transformation, and outputs in economic systems, this method can describe the overall scenario of how economic entities are using resources. This looks at resource utilization in an economy from the perspective of the quantity of materials and not the quantity of money.

China’s flow of materials: an overview

The following basic conclusions can be drawn from the graphs showing China’s material flows in 1992 and 2014 (see Figure 1.7). These describe the overall

Overview of material flows ofthe Chinese economy in 1992 and 2014 (100 million tons)

Figure 1.7 Overview of material flows ofthe Chinese economy in 1992 and 2014 (100 million tons)11

situation with respect to inputs and outputs and the ‘metabolism’ of material inputs by the economy.

First, the total scale of materials going through the economic system has increased. Between 1992 and 2014, the quantity of material inputs12 went from 29.662 billion tons to 91.138 billion tons - that is, they more than tripled (3.07 times the 1992 figure). Outputs coming out of the economic system13 also increased but by less (they went from 24.064 billion tons to 67.433 billion tons, for an increase of 2.8 times the 1992 figure). Among outputs, emissions of waste materials went fi'om 2.862 billion tons to 10.039 billion tons. This indicates that massive quantities of resources were used in the course of rapid economic growth and that ecological pressures on the natural environment were extreme as a result.

Second, the efficiency with which resources were used rose quickly, and the quality of economic growth consistently improved. Dining this period, the quantity of materials consumed and the net inventory of materials both rose quickly. Between 1992 and 2014, China’s quantity of materials consumed increased by 22.119 billion tons, or 2.64 times the original figure. The net stock of materials increased by 18.138 billion tons, or by 3.26 times the original figure. The fact that the net stock of materials increased at a pace faster than the consumption of materials and faster than the speed at wiiich both inputs and outputs increased indicated that the quality of economic growth was rapidly improving.

Third, emissions of air pollutants were the primary form of domestic processed output. The percentage of air pollutants in domestic processed output (DPO) also consistently u’ent up. In 1992, air pollutants accounted for 93.6% of all domestic processed output, w’hile by 2014, they accounted for 97.2%.

Fourth, inputs made up of recycled resources increased remarkably, by ten times over the course of twelve years. In 1992, these amounted to 262 million tons, while by 2014, they amounted to 2.224 billion tons. Recycled resources went from 0.08% of all material inputs to 2.5% of all inputs, but despite this increase, they still represented a fairly low level of all inputs.

Between 1992 and 2014, the Total Materials Requirement (TMR)14 of the Chinese economy and the Direct Materials Input (DMI)15 both increased considerably (see Figure 1.8). The period of fastest increase came between 2002 and 2011, when TMR grewr by 9.39% per year on average and DMI grew’ by 8.89% per year on average. These growth rates were much higher than they had been between 1992 and 2002. After 2011, the growth rate of both these metrics slowed as the economy grew’ at a slower pace. The growth rate of domestic processed output slowed as well.

TMR divided by DMI gives a ratio that indicates the amount of materials that have not directly entered into the production process. The higher this ratio is, the greater the percentage of ‘hidden flow’s’ of materials or what could be called ‘unused extraction. ’16 A higher ratio signifies a greater load or burden on the ecosystem. Since 2005, this ratio has shown a declining trend overall. It went from 3.16 hi 2005 to 2.87 in 2014 (see Figure 1.8). This indicates that the per unit ecological burden of the Chinese economy is gradually improving, and environmental pressures of resource extraction are gradually being reduced, which is a very encouraging sign.17

Changes in DMI and TMR between 1992 and 2014

Figure 1.8 Changes in DMI and TMR between 1992 and 2014

Source: Background report titled Transformation of Resource Utilization: Paths and Measures for Reducing Emissions and Resource Use m Production.

The quantity of China’s DMIs per capita continues to show an upward trend. It went from 7.29 tons per person in 1992 to 22.73 tons per person in 2014, for an average annual increase of 3.34% (see Figure 1.9). However, the process of urbanization in China lias resulted, by now, in more than half of the population being ‘urban.’ This means that the inventory of housing and basic infrastructure is approaching a leveling off or saturation so that per capita material inputs may well stabilize in the near future or even begin to decline.

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