Decreasing Importance of the Agricultural Sector in China’s Development is Reflected in Decreasing CO2 and NOX Emissions from Agriculture

For millennia, China has been a rural, agriculture-based country. While 56.1% or 5.29 mio km2 (2020) of China’s landmass is still considered agricultural land, the importance of agriculture for the country’s development has been steadily decreasing over the past decades. There are currently about 3.9 mio km2 of pasture and between 1.3. – 1.6 mio km2  – depending on the source – of arable land. More than 64% of arable land is situated north along a line from Qinling to Weihai, stretching from Xinjiang, Jilin, Henan, and Inner Mongolia to Heilongjiang. The largest single crops according to the 2019 Statistical Yearbook are corn and rice, with fruit cultivation following closely.

The changed value of agricultural production can be illustrated by performance figures from 2020 which show that the added value of agriculture and related industries (machinery, logistics, marketing etc.) in China was 16,690 billion yuan (US$ 2,500 billion), accounting for 16.47% of GDP. However, the added value of agriculture and related industries was more than two times that of agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery without the industrial part: they only made up 7.7 % of the total GDP in 2020 and were further down to 7.3% in 2021.

While China’s grain is mainly used for domestic use, vegetable products, fruit or aquatic products are often exported. However, agricultural food commodities are only responsible for approx. 7% of the total volume of Chinese exports and only 2.5% of their value. Agricultural activity and productivity have been declining in importance for the GDP over the past decades as industrial production expanded and income from export such as electronic parts, and textiles increased. In addition, with urban sprawl encroaching on farmland, the percentage of arable land has been in decline gradually.

Concomitant with the overall decline in importance in GDP-terms development of the agricultural sector, values of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e) have been gradually decreasing. However, there are significant differences when looking at the CO2e components. CO2 emissions in agriculture have dropped by more than half since 2015. While at the same time, value trends for Methane and NOX emissions are actually stagnating.

Agricultural-related CO2 emissions in 2015 came to 22.5 mio tons, in 2021 they were down to 10.8 mio tons. Methane, however, stood at 19.2 mio tons in 2015 and had dropped only to 18.4 mio tons by 2021. Similarly, NOX-related emissions stood 0.81 mio tons in 2021, not much difference from the 0.92 mio tons in 2015.

Rice cultivation remains the biggest subsector among agricultural production to create overall CO2e emissions. The picture is very different when looking at individual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Here cropland fires are the single biggest contributor, but cropland fires present only the smallest proportion of emission sources when looking at overall CO2 equivalents. Rice cultivation has been in 2015 and continues 2021 to be the largest source of methane emissions.

In global terms, while in 2015 Methane and NOX emissions made up around 14% of related global emissions and the percentage has not changed significantly by 2021, agriculture-related CO2 emissions more than halved from 22.5% in 2015 to 6% of all related global emissions in 2021. When looking at the relation of agriculture-related emissions to other sectors, it becomes evident that agricultural production is not China’s biggest source of emissions. Industries like power generation, construction, transportation and fossil fuel operations by far outpace agricultural emissions. This phenomenon is concomitant with China’s overall development industry that focused on the industrialization of the country away from the agricultural society China used to be.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager: Annette Wiedenbach




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