Beijing, China – Increasing consumption associated with economic growth and urbanization are placing growing pressure on China’s natural environment, reveals the 2012 edition of WWF’s China Ecological Footprint Report, a biennial survey on the country’s demand on nature.
Produced in collaboration with the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research (IGSNRR) and Institute of Zoology (IOZ) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Global Footprint Network (GFN) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the third edition of the report shows that although China’s per capita Ecological Footprint – or demand the country places on the natural environment – is lower than the global average, the nation is already consuming 2.5 times its biocapacity – the capacity to regenerate natural resources and absorb carbon emissions.
Carbon remains the largest component of China’s overall Ecological Footprint, increasing from 10 per cent in 1961 to 54 percent in 2008. Only a small portion of this comes from direct consumption of fuel or electricity in households or of gasoline for transport – the vast majority are indirect emissions, embodied in consumer goods and services, which account for up to 90 per cent of carbon footprint in some regions.
The drivers of the average Chinese person’s Ecological Footprint have also changed, with a significant turning point around 1985 when growth rates of per capita consumption outstripped production efficiency.
“Of all the demands China is now placing on its environment, carbon emissions are having the biggest impact by far. More than ever, the country needs innovative solutions to reduce its carbon footprint – production efficiency needs to improve, and consumers need to shift their choice to low footprint products,” added Dr. Li Lin.
The report shows that rapid urbanization is having a big impact on China’s footprint, with urban areas registering much higher per capita footprints than rural areas across all mainland provinces. Urbanization often comes in tandem with increasing income, which in turn leads to the growth and change of consumption patterns.
However, findings also show that rural areas face unique challenges in ensuring the health of their natural resources.
In Beijing’s urban core, the average household consumes less energy than homes in its rural peripheries. Urban density has a lot to do with this, as does access to better public transportation and other services mainly found in cities,” said Dr. Li.
“But reducing the nation’s footprint isn’t challenge faced by cities alone – it requires balanced development in urban and rural areas and the promotion of sustainable consumption patterns outside of major population centers,” she added.
Health of 12 Key Species Analyzed
The report also provides an in-depth analysis of 12 key species  across China, revealing that although many are receiving top-level protection status, iconic giant pandas and Asian elephants are showing slow recovery rates – only the crested ibis and Chinese musk deer are showing signs of positive population growth.
“The factors threatening key species, including poaching, human population growth, urbanization, infrastructure construction and global climate change, are faced by Chinese ecosystems to varying extents,” said Professor Yang Qisen from IOZ.
To better understand these threats, future editions of the China Ecological Footprint Report will contain a robust index that measures changes to the health of the country’s ecosystems over time.
Modelled on WWF’s global Living Planet Index, which measures the health of the planet’s ecosystems by tracking 9,000 populations of more than 2,600 species, the early stages of the domestic equivalent uses information on vertebrate populations from 1952-2011, representing nearly 8 per cent of China’s vertebrates.
“It is essential for China, one of the 12 globally recognized highest biodiversity countries, to establish its own Living Planet Index to support the biodiversity protection research in China,” said Yang Qisen.
WWF believes that China can do more to move towards a green economy and proposes that the nation better define ecological redlines in specific areas, increase natural resource protection, and develop stronger policies that help improve biocapacity.
“China is at a turning point. The choices China makes today regarding consumption, production, investment and trade, and in managing its natural capital, will determine the country’s future,” said WWF International Director General Jim Leape. “China is now the world’s second largest economy: choosing a sustainable development path is essential to China’s ecological security and its people’s wellbeing, but will also have a critical influence on global sustainable development.”
 Twelve Key Species are: Giant Panda, Amur Tiger, Japanese Crested Ibis, Musk Deer, Asian Elephant, Qinghai Lake Naked Carp, Central Asian Salamander, Père David’s Deer, Bactrian Camel, Hainan Gibbon, Chinese Alligator and Yangtze River Dolphin.