Is food insecurity a looming eventuality in China’s future?

Is food insecurity a looming eventuality in China’s future?

Source: China – Yangshuo 29 – Rice Paddy Terraces | McKay Savage 

A recent study carried out by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that increased global temperatures caused by the emission of greenhouse gases could lead to a two-fold increase in crop pests and disease in China by the end of the century. They warn that this could put a massive burden on food producers and threaten the country’s food security. China’s carbon emissions have soared following the reopening of the country after the Covid-19 pandemic. This has mainly been driven by growth in the construction, energy and steel industries. Without a serious reduction, it looks unlikely that China will be able to mitigate the disastrous repercussions these emissions will have on its agricultural industry and food security as a whole. 

Agriculture in the context of climate change

The abundance of crop pests and diseases (CPDs) has increased by 400% in China since the 1970s. A study, carried out by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, showed that climate change, stemming from greenhouse gas emissions, was responsible for more than a fifth of this growth and could lead to further increases in the future. They state that under the worst potential scenario, in which the Earth’s average temperature increases by 4.4°C, CPDs could double by the end of the century and significantly threaten global food supply. 

In contrast, China’s carbon emissions have soared since the reopening of its economy last year. This has mostly resulted from growth in its construction, steel and cement industries which have seen a rise of up to 14.5% in CO2 emissions. In December, coal also reached a record high output of 384.67 tonnes, according to Reuters. Over the whole year, this number reached 4.07 billion tonnes, which was up 4.7% from 2020. 

China does, however, have a plan to curb this growth. Xi Jingping’s 15th five-year plan, set to come into force between the years 2026-2030, aims to peak coal consumption in the country before 2030. The steel industry making up 30% of this coal use and has already been targeted by policies promoting  greener steel plant layouts, energy conservation and energy efficient improvements. These aim to reduce the emissions produced from the sector even sooner, with a peak before 2025 and steady decrease of 30% by 2030. 

The Potsdam scientists responsible for the study have claimed that if the global average temperature does stay below a 2°C increase, the occurrence of CPDs by the end of the century will only show a slight increase from 2020 levels which would give agricultural research a chance to reduce their impact.

Can China reduce its emissions enough?

In his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos a few weeks ago, Xi Jingping announced that it would be “impossible for China to accomplish its climate goals in one stroke” according to a translation provided by Carbon Brief. The address also saw Xi calling for the country to break old systems while establishing new ones. It went a step further than previous speeches that pushed to “establish new systems before breaking [old ones]”, suggesting a more proactive approach to the country’s green transition. However, for Wang, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Xi’s speech primarily emphasised a need for “patience and understanding in the face of [China’s] slow actions”.

Despite rising coal use in both steel and electricity, others have argued that China is still on track to achieve its 2030 target. Dr. Yang Muyi, the senior electricity policy analyst of Asia at Ember (an independent climate and energy think tank) highlights that China’s recent rise in coal production has been in-line with its coal production from other years since 2017– growth was 3.2% in 2017, 4.5% the year after and 4.2% the year after that. In his argument, 2020 has been removed as an exception to the trend. China’s coal production growth has indeed decreased, falling by 15% from 2010. Nevertheless, Yang states huge steps will need to be taken to limit climate change to its internationally agreed 1.5°C rise. 

A study published in the research journal Nature Communications has shown that if China’s current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to carbon emissions is tracked, emissions will peak at 10.4GtCO2 in 2030 and steadily decline to 7.3GtCO2 in 2050. Nevertheless, the paper highlights that if further climate action is not taken before 2030, a massive drop in emissions between 2030 and 2050 will be unavoidable if China is to meet its international engagements and stay beneath the cumulative emissions threshold of 259GtCO2 for the period.

As the most polluting industry, serious reductions in the power sector will have the most chance of bringing forward and reducing the peak of carbon emissions in total. Without this, a peak in 2030 will require China to reabsorb 0.5 to 1.6 GtCO2 in 2050. The paper concludes that it is essential that China decarbonizes its power sector relatively quickly to allow for time to transition its power systems and start reducing other economic areas, such as transport and construction. 

What does this mean for CPDs in Chinese agriculture? 

Taking into account Dr. Muyi’s argument, China is still on track to reach its carbon emissions target for 2030, which would allow for a steady reduction of carbon emissions following the peak between 2025 and 2030. This would suggest that given all other factors remain stable, climate change may not be set to push the abundance of CPDs past a number that would destroy China’s agricultural economy. 

According to Carbon Brief, China’s best bet would be to retract policies that benefit construction and real-estate whilst bolstering support for ‘high quality’ growth such as services and the high-tech sectors. Government policies aimed at reducing developers’ reliance on debt have contributed to this, with a sharp decline of house prices predicted for 2022 and 2023.

Nevertheless, this will likely not be enough. Xi’s call for patience with China’s slow energy transition highlights he may not be prepared to make the rapid reductions needed to remain below the 259GtCO2 emissions threshold in 2050. High energy demands will continue to delay reductions, with the government already pushing back against international pressure to begin replacing its coal power plants before 2026. 

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) calculates that almost 40% of the world’s crops are currently being destroyed by pests annually, costing the world economy billions of dollars. Given China’s prominence within the food industry as the world’s largest producer of rice and wheat and the second largest producer of maize, a moderate year-on-year increase of CPDs is likely to increase this while significantly destabilising both its economy and the global food supply.

There is also a possibility that a number of other important crop-growing countries will be invaded by CPDs by 2050. Although given the limited information on crop pest and disease trends, conclusions are difficult to draw. Xuhui Wang, an assistant professor at Peking University, nonetheless, calls for international collaboration to tackle the spread of disease. He highlights that ‘the consequences of climate change are not only through a warmer climate alone. It’s through the interconnection of the entire biosphere that is threatening or… exposing our food security to increased risk.’

It is, therefore, likely that in the next five years we will see a greater proportion of global food under threat from CPDs brought on by warmer climates. With this, it is essential that we begin to develop long term methods to control these pests, through scientific advancement, pesticides or through a much more targeted approach to climate change. China’s ability to do this will rely heavily on Xi’s ability to align his country’s economic growth with its environmental responsibility. 

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