China and the Energy-Food-Water Nexus

By Niall Duggan. China’s energy-food-water nexus raises a number of human security issues. The nexus will slow Chinese growth and create instability. It is clear that China cannot solve these issues in isolation. China will require access to, and management of, energy, food and water resources beyond its own borders.

This article has originally been published in IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies of the University of Nottingham/UK and has been reposted here with kind permission by the author.

The UK’s exit from the European Union and the Trump administration’s America First policy have led commentators to suggest that the West’s global influence is in decline and that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will become a leader in global governance, particularly in the area of climate change. There are signs to suggest that China intends to increase its role in solving global issues. According to the South China Morning Post, President Xi Jinping has stated that “[China] will proactively push forward the construction of a global network of partners and will proactively push for political solutions to international hot issues and difficult problems”. Since the beginning of the reform era, China has played a low-key role in international affairs, rarely involving itself in issues beyond its direct national interest. So what is driving this sudden change in foreign policy?

First and foremost are domestic issues of human security. China’s economic success in no small part has been driven by access to the global market, which is underpinned by the current free trade values of global economic governance. China’s economic success has led to the industrialisation and urbanisation of Chinese society. Increased wealth from industrialisation has spurred a huge increase in the standard of living for China’s citizens. For example, China’s increasingly wealthy middle class is changing its diet towards one with a higher intake of high‐value foods, animal proteins, fruits and vegetables, as well as a lower intake of starchy staples. Such a dietary shift requires a larger output by Chinese farmers or an increase in imports.

Overall, this improvement in living standards has realised changes not only in food consumption but also in water and energy consumption in China. Water, energy and food are an interrelated nexus of resources. Food production is the largest consumer of water globally. Meanwhile, water is used to generate eight percent of the world energy. In turn, food production accounts for 30 percent of global energy demand as petroleum-based fertilizers and transportation are critical to the food production supply chain. Finally, energy production creates pollution from fossil fuels, damaging agricultural land and water. Moreover, renewable energy sources such as biofuels expend agricultural land. For policy makers, the food-water-energy nexus is a balancing act between competing issues of human security.

China’s large population, rapid economic growth, and relatively small availability of agricultural land — China has only about 0.2 acres of arable land per citizen, including fields degraded by pollution — make this balancing act particularly difficult for Chinese policy makers, who are increasingly turning to international markets to help balance the nexus. China’s economic success has encouraged large numbers of people to migrate from the rural to the urban economy to seek jobs in China’s booming industrial sector. These new urban workers require new housing and transportation networks to take them to their places of work.

These developments, along with expanding industrial and services infrastructures, result in rapid urbanisation. Thus, Chinese cities are now encroaching on the rural food-producing areas that surround the cities. Most Chinese cities are located in the east on the rich arable lands of the Chinese coast, which already face the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change. A joint report by the World Bank and the Development Research Centre of China’s State Council entitled Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization stated that “Because most of the urban expansion in recent years was on converted rural land … the amount of farmland available is close to the ‘red line’ of 120 million hectares, which is considered to be the minimum necessary to ensure food security”.

China has maintained food production by increasing its use of petroleum-based fertilizers, which ultimately reduce the long-term sustainability of farming in China due  to their financial costs as well as the damage they wreak on the land. The reduction of available land and the changing diets of the Chinese middle class will mean that China will soon be unable to maintain its food sovereignty. This will increasingly require China to turn to the international market to achieve food security. The industrialisation and urbanisation of Chinese society has also put a huge strain on China’s water system, which industries such as metallurgy, textile and chemicals depend on. Moreover, water is an important resource in power generation. Such consumption of water reduces the availability of water for domestic use and food production. The industrial application of water, as well as the heavy use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, as sources of energy, has resulted in nearly 60 percent of China’s groundwater becoming polluted, further reducing water security. To overcome China’s growing water insecurity, China requires better management of its water sources. However, this will, in part, require international cooperation, since a number of rivers cross international borders.

In terms of energy security, industrialisation and urbanisation have increased China’s energy consumption. In fact, China became the largest global energy consumer in 2011. Coal and oil have been the backbone of China’s energy strategy. However, these fossil fuels contribute to air and water pollution, damage arable land, and are major contributors to climate change. For this reason, renewable energy played a central role in China’s Energy Policy 2012. However, increasing the production of renewable energy requires a greater consumption of land and water, reducing the availability of both resources for domestic use. China already relies on the international market for most of its oil consumption. Due to the energy-food-water nexus, this may also become the case for renewable energies.

China’s energy-food-water nexus raises a number of human security issues. The nexus will slow Chinese growth and create instability. It is clear that China cannot solve these issues in isolation. China will require access to, and management of, energy, food and water resources beyond its own borders. Key to gaining access to these resources is through the current global market, which functions, in part, due to the current system of global economic governance. China’s increased need for the global market to achieve a harmonious energy-food-water nexus will require China to champion the system of free trade that nationalism in some key Western powers is now challenging.

Niall Duggan is a lecturer in international relations at the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork in Ireland.

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