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China confronts global warming dilemma

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The storm was also a moment for China’s leaders to consider the consequences of the extraordinary growth of the country’s economy, which has expanded by 9.7 percent annually over the past 30 years.

Now the world’s top global exporter of manufactured goods, China is also the world’s largest importer of tropical woods and its largest producer of cement, feeding a breakneck pace of construction. Every year, 8.5 million farmers leave their villages for fast-growing cities. The McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that by 2030, China will have 1 billion urban residents.

Although the benefits of China’s economic expansion have been immense — lifting a staggering 630 million people out of poverty — so, too, has been the environmental impact. In 2006, Forbes magazine found that all 10 of the world’s most polluted cities were in China. The water in about half of China’s major waterways is unfit for drinking or even agriculture.

Even as China has invested heavily in alternative energy systems, its primary source of fuel is still overwhelmingly coal. The World Bank estimates [pdf] that China’s polluted water and air result in about 750,000 premature deaths each year.

Because of the country’s size and influence, China’s environmental concerns are no longer simply its own. China has overtaken the United States as the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. In 2006, China emitted approximately 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, approximately one-fifth of the world’s total.

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