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Agriculture – China’s forgotten climate threat

China needs a green agricultural revolution to meet its 2060 carbon neutrality pledge, but a comprehensive turn towards sustainable farming will be hard to achieve, says Paula Kuls.

China’s national carbon-trading scheme came in effect on the 1st of February. It is part of China’s climate governance policies to curb its CO2 emissions, although these largely overlook non-CO2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and one of their main sources – agriculture. Emissions from farming – from things like animal husbandry, use of fertilizers, and rice farming – are mostly made up of methane and nitrous oxide and account for 7 percent of China’s GHGs. Also, methane can trap up to 25 times as much heat as CO2, nitrous oxide even 300 times as much, which makes them far more potent GHGs than CO2. All of which means China’s agricultural emissions pose a real threat to the success of China’s climate governance.

Despite this, Beijing has made only scattered attempts to curb its agricultural emissions. While the central government wants to achieve zero growth in the use of fertilizers and pesticides by 2020 as a sub-goal of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), it set no overarching reduction targets or emission caps for farming and put no targets for non-CO2 emissions into the NDCs. This stance is also reflected in China’s national climate policies, whose language suggests a certain awareness of the issue, but fails to address agricultural emissions in anything like the comprehensive measures to bring down CO2 emissions are defined.

China’s climate governance is at a crossroads

With the 14th Five Year Plan to be published in March 2021 and an update of its NDCs due at the end of the year, China’s climate governance is at a crossroads. While President Xi Jinping’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 has given cause for optimism that the country will double down on its climate governance efforts, the exact roadmap – and the importance of agricultural emissions to it – remains unclear. Even if they come to be included in the 2060 pledge, the country remains in urgent need of concrete short- and mid-term targets.

But the likelihood of Beijing committing to concrete and immediate targets for curbing agricultural emissions is undermined by fundamental conflicts of interest and structural challenges. The main hindrance is that far-reaching measures are in conflict with core interests of the Chinese state. These range from aspiring to self-sufficiency in food-security to managing an unfavorable ratio of arable land to population – which translates into excessive use of fertilizers to raise output, relying on methane-emitting rice as a staple food for 1.4 billion people, and alleviating poverty by introducing poor farmers to animal husbandry.

Additionally, China is well on its way to creating the “moderately prosperous society” promised by Xi, meaning that consumption of meat and other more emissions-intense agricultural output will grow. The average Chinese citizen in 2017 ate around 51 kg of meat per year and is by 2026 projected to consume about 55 kg. As consumption in a country like Germany averaged 87.8 kg per capita in 2019, a further dramatic increase can be expected in China with growing wealth. In turn, this development leads to a rapid increase in meat production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that China will lead the global increase in meat production well into the next decade. With both meat consumption and production on the rise in China, the emissions stemming from it will also increase.

The structure of the agricultural sector is another challenge. A high degree of fragmentation and a low level of mechanization make the implementation of policies and the introduction of modern technical solutions challenging. This becomes evident in contrast to China’s energy sector where Beijing is currently pushing for a transition towards clean energy. While the energy sector is dominated by a few large state-owned enterprises and, thus, is both centralized and closely linked to the government, Beijing is nonetheless struggling to halt coal projects due to the conflicting interests of different actors and coordination issues. Reform of the agricultural sector which is far more diverse in its development level and fragmented with regards to its actors would be even more difficult for the central government to tackle.

Making farming greener is not a priority despite intended shift towards sustainability

But Beijing has shown its willingness to overcome such hindrances and to shift towards sustainability. In the energy sector, it has opened a window for initiating an energy transition despite constraining factors like China’s reliance on coal to ensure its energy security or fears that a coal phase-out would raise unemployment. This was possible because these constraining factors were balanced by opportunities – like leapfrogging over industrialized nations in the field of renewable technologies or banishing the all-too palpable pollution and health threats caused by creating energy by burning fossil fuels.

Sadly for agriculture, opportunities that could spur Beijing to make farming greener are not nearly as pronounced. Yet doing nothing is not an option. Firstly, climate change will in the long run adversely impact agricultural output. In 2020, China experienced floods that destroyed large parts of the annual harvest and put pressure on the country’s food supply. The extent and frequency of such extreme weather events will rise with climate change. Secondly, agricultural greening is not only necessary from a climate perspective. China’s soil quality is decreasing because of excessive fertilizer use. Farmers are already experiencing soil depletion that in the long run will lead to rising poverty in agricultural communities as income losses mount.

The issue is by no means exclusive to China. All over the world, curbing agricultural emissions has been largely forgotten and its potential impact on climate change widely ignored. A recent study shows that agricultural emissions have the potential to hinder the world limiting global warming to under 1.5 and 2.0°C even if it eliminates fossil fuel and other emissions and other sources of emissions soon. This makes agricultural emissions the Achilles’ heel of climate governance – in China and elsewhere.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies. 

About the author:

Paula Kuls was an intern at the Politics and Society team at MERICS. She studied East Asian Studies and received her BA from Heidelberg University, before doing her MSc. in Chinese Studies at Oxford University. She gained Chinese language proficiency during her year at Nankai University in Tianjin.