In this post, originally published in Harvard Asia Quarterly. I draw the connections among food, water and energy systems in China and make the case for the urgent need for more integrated approaches to resource management.
China’s rapidly growing economy is very quickly testing the limits of its resource constraints. While China is home to a quarter of the world’s population, it is endowed with disproportionately less arable land, oil and water.
Such natural resources are vital to any nation’s ability to be self-sufficient, but China’s predicament is especially dire not only because of its large population, but also its rapid urbanization and climate change, both of which will exert more intensive demands on food, energy and water supply. Yet, other than recognizing that water is essential for agriculture, the discussion of each resource constraint is often conducted in isolation, without paying heed to the inter-linkages of food, energy and water systems.
The Example of the Yangtze River
China’s Yangtze River (pictured right) is the third longest in the world and stretches over 6,000 kilometers from the Qinghai Plateau in the west towards the East China Sea at Shanghai. Throughout China’s history, it has played a central role culturally, socially, and economically. It is the unofficial dividing line between China’s north and south, flows through deep gorges in Yunnan Province that have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and serves as the lifeblood upon which much of China’s agricultural and industrial activity has depended on to the present day. All told, the Yangtze River system produces 40 percent of the nation’s grain, a third of its cotton, 48 percent of its freshwater fish and 40 percent of its total industrial output value.
The Yangtze has now become a victim of its own success. With China’s rapid economic industrialization over the past three decades, the Yangtze has evolved from a source of life and prosperity to a symptom of the limits of China’s unabated economic pursuits. It has become a depository for 60 percent of the country’s pollution, making it the single largest source of pollution in the Pacific Ocean. The Yangtze is also home to two massive and highly controversial hydraulic projects—the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydro-electric power facility, and the South-North Water Diversification (SNWD) project (see map illustration below), an unprecedented, multi-decade effort to channel water from the water-rich south to the arid north—each a symptom of a larger ill. The former project points to China’s struggles to maintain energy security and desire to use cleaner sources of energy in a carbon-constrained world, while the latter points to its sheer desperation to address a gross imbalance in the distribution and use of water resources across the Chinese sub-continent.
Neither project comes on the cheap; the Three Gorges Dam bore a price tag of US$30 billion and the SNWD project is projected to cost twice that. Both projects have caused, or will continue to cause, the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of citizens and the significant alteration of landscapes, including the destruction of arable land. Needless to say, both projects have required, or will require, massive inputs of concrete, steel and energy. Together, Three Gorges and SNWD point to a fragile interrelationship between energy, water and food. Beyond the Yangtze, the “food–water–energy trilemma” represents a looming and complex threat to China’s economic stability and national security.
Climate change now stands front and center of energy and environmental agendas around the world. In virtually every case, Read the full story
Last month, I reviewed the Tyndall Center report on China’s Energy Transition: Pathways for Low Carbon Development and expressed three specific concerns. Since then, I’ve had an opportunity to exchange emails with Dr. Wang Tao (pictured right), one of the co-authors of the report. He has taken time to address my questions and has graciously agreed to have his explanations posted here.
Here are the concerns I raised on my last post, rephrased for clarity, and Dr. Wang’s responses.
1. In choosing a global carbon budget for the report’s scenario analysis, a target of 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, which translates to roughly 550 ppm carbon dioxide equivalent, is used. Is 550ppm CO2e a safe target, especially considering what we know about negative feedback loops and runaway climate change?
No. As many already know, climate change is already happening and there have been many arguments about what is a relatively safe level of carbon concentration to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. The scientific consensus has not been reached; as I have witnessed myself in the Copenhagen climate science congress in March 2009, you can hear people talking about levels from as low as 300 ppm to as high as 550ppm, yet no one is be perfectly sure. I do recognize that the 550 ppm target that we choose is at the upper end; this does not mean we accept this level as acceptable, but that is the only figure with wide scientific consensus in the IPCC AR4. I would like to reduce it to lower level if there is another widely accepted level. The report has shown that even with 550ppm CO2e it would be very difficult to reach and require significant courage from government to take radical changes soon. It is better to get them moving rather than scare them off at the first place, right? With the same methodology, you could always apply lower CO2 level if wanted, but the trajectories may look scarier. Our choice is rather a compromise between what is ideal and what is practical, as we said in the report. Read the full story
Editor’s Note: This edition of Green Hops contains an inexplicably frequent number of references to Guangzhou and Guangdong. We wonder why that might be…
Water issues continue to dominate China’s environmental agenda thanks to the recent World Water Forum in Turkey. The forum ended pathetically, failing to recognize water as a basic human right. But in more positive news, Guangzhou (capital city of southeastern Guangdong province) received the “Compromiso Mexico” water prize, which rewards “the best local public policies that have had a positive impact on the drinking water, sewerage and sanitation services in the communities they interact with.” According to Xinhua:
Since 1997, the government launched a number of water initiatives, which greatly improved the once heavily polluted inlets of the city’s Pearl River. The government is expected to allocate 48.6 billion yuan (some 7.11 billion U.S. dollars) for water management in 2009 and 2010, which accounts for one third of its financial budget.
A guest post by Heather Chi on the promise (and potential perils) of small-scale organic agriculture in China.
Given the urgent need to reform China’s agriculture and food production infrastructure in the context of rising concerns about the country’s ability to feed its growing population, the need to ensure food safety for locally grown and exported produce, as well as the need to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, promoting small-scale agriculture emerges as a viable option that China’s policymakers should seriously consider.
Firstly, small-scale agriculture has significant potential to lift China’s struggling rural farmers out of poverty. A recent study on fruit farmers in Shandong reveals that at least a number of small and poor farmers have been able to access traditional marketing channels despite the rise of larger industrial farms that are increasingly integrating these supply chains. This is largely on account of the observation that a majority of transactions between buyers and producers are conducted in cash and done on a spot-market basis, rather than by supply contracts. This suggests that increased financial and technological support for small, rural Chinese farmers could be a significant contributor towards boosting rural incomes and narrowing the income gap between traditional and industrial agriculture. Read the full story
This edition of Green Hops is dedicated to Andrew Symon, a Singapore-based journalist specializing in energy and whom I have had the pleasure and honor of making an acquaintance of as a result of his writings at Asia Times Online. He passed away unexpectedly on February 24, 2009. Andrew’s generosity, sense of mission and powerful intellect will be sorely missed.
Energy intensity (energy consumption per unit of GDP) last year was reduced by a further 4.59%, bringing the three year total in energy efficiency gains in 2006 through 2008 to 10.08%. This means that to reach its 20% energy intensity reduction target over the five year period for 2006 through 2010, it will have to reduce almost another 10% in energy intensity over 2005 levels. Even if it seems difficult to achieve, such efforts much press on. To sobering reality is that China’s annual greenhouse gas emissions surged 45% from 2002 to 2005 alone due to a combination of structural changes in industrial activities and increased consumption. Half of that increase, apparently, was driven by manufactured exports. But the Chinese authorities say that exports in general are declining (25% year on year) and that the amount of “high-energy-consuming products” exported in 2008 declined 16.2% from the previous year. Read the full story
There are perhaps 40 different eco-city projects across China at the moment. If you had to design your own city, what would its infrastructure look like? Are cities, per se, even the right form of settlement for eco-planners to design? Here, The Green Leap Forward takes a look at several ideas in eco-community design, inspired by visits to several proposed eco-city sites in China last year, several presentations at a recent conference at the National University of Singapore, and the writings of Brian Milani.
Unified Infrastructure: Using Systems Thinking to Build Communities
If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others. The problem is that these seemingly disparate Read the full story
As unlikely as it sounds, if there is one thing that holds the key to China’s sustainable future, that one thing is soils. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to emphasize that soils lies at the heart of the food-water-energy trilemma, which this blog has been harping on as of late (see previous post).
Soil is really where all life begins. Most obviously, our food sources depend on it. Soils are also a vital links global nutrient and water cycles. Less well known is the immense potential of soils to act as vast carbon sinks, with the ability to “naturally turn over about 10 times more greenhouse gas on a global scale than the burning of fossil fuels.”
Understanding the significance of this last fact relies on the appreciation that displacing all fossil fuel power plants with solar and wind farms, while necessary in curbing the flow of Read the full story
China has set itself a target to reduce water consumption per unit GDP by 60% by the year 2020, according to Chen Lei, the Minister of Water Resourced and Management. This pronouncement comes in the wake of extreme drought conditions currently afflicting central and northern China, and statistics released over the weekend that shows China experiences an annual deficit of 40 billion cubic meters of water, with almost two thirds of all cities experiencing varying degrees of water shortage and 200 million rural dwellers facing drinking water shortages. Such ambitions are lofty but not the first time water efficiency goals has been made official policy; in 2007, it set the target of reducing “water intensity” by 20% for the five year period ending 2010. Read the full story
Its been a busy few weeks since our last Green Hops, so GLF is gonna pack in the updates over two posts consecutive posts.
The “worst drought in half a century” affecting eight northern and central provinces dominated the past week’s news. A 90 percent drop in average rainfall since last November will affect 11 million hectares of wheat crops and create a drinking water shortage for 4.4 million people and 2.2. million livestock. RMB 187 billion of emergency funds have been earmarked. As stop-gap measures, authorities are diverting water from the Yangtze and Yellow River to drought-ridden areas, as well as shelling the sky with pellets to induce rain, Beijing Olympics-style. The water diversion measure has been able to get half of the wheat lands irrigated, but is rather ironic given that a recent study shows that 82% of China’s whopping 3.57 million square kilometers of degraded lands (equivalent to the size of 10 Germanys!) exists in the Yangtze River and Yellow River valleys. The water scarcity woes of northern China have been well described on this blog by Christine Boyle. The World Bank also chimes in with its own comprehensive list of policy recommendation to address water scarcity. Read the full story