Energy, Food, Climate Change, and the Rise of China: Scenarios of Global Crisis

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Energy, Food, Climate Change, and the Rise of China:

Scenarios of Global Crisis

Dr. Minqi Li, Assistant Professor

Department of Economics, University of Utah

1645 E. Campus Center, Salt Lake City, UT 84112

Phone: 801-828-5279; E-mail:
June 2007
Contribution to Marxist Renewal
Capitalism is an economic system based on the production for profit and accumulation of capital. The endless pursuit of profit and accumulation inevitably leads to material production and consumption on increasingly larger scales that tend to deplete the earth’s resources and pollute the environment.
These processes are now reaching their ecological limits. In the coming decades, global capitalism is likely to be confronted with multiple major crises arising from the depletion of fossil fuels, declining food production, and potential catastrophes associated with climate change. It is the opinion of this author that it is impossible for these crises to be resolved within the historical framework of capitalism. The survival of the humanity is at stake. The resolution of the global environmental crisis requires an alternative social system, which is based on production for use, rational allocation of global resources with democratic planning, and equitable distribution, that is, a world socialist planned economy.
After the 1976 counter-revolutionary coup, China’s bureaucratic capitalist class fully consolidated its political power. Since then, the capitalist relations of production have been established in China and China has become increasingly incorporated into the global capitalist economy. In recent years, China has become a leading driving force for the global capitalist economy. Some speculate that China will replace the US to become the next hegemony, and lead a successful restructuring of the capitalist world system.
In fact, capitalist accumulation in China has led to social and environmental crisis at home, and by greatly accelerating the consumption of energy and other resources, has played a major role in intensifying the global environmental crisis.
The next section discusses the relationship between capitalist accumulation and the global environmental crisis. The rest of the paper presents several scenarios of global ecological crisis, discussing the depletion of fossil fuels, declining food production, climate change, and China’s growing impact on the global environment.

Capitalism and the Global Environmental Crisis

Capitalist states and individual capitalists engage in constant, intense competition against each other. To prevail in competition, capitalists are motivated as well as compelled to use a substantial portion of their profits for capital accumulation.
If the organic composition of capital (the ratio of means of production to labor power) is constant, capital accumulation must proceed no faster than the growth of the labor force or the population. Otherwise, capital accumulation would soon deplete the reserve army of labor, driving down the profit rate and leading to crisis. 1
To be freed from the constraint of the available labor force and to rebuild the reserve army of labor, the organic composition of capital must rise. The rising organic composition of capital requires the substitution of machines and other means of production for labor power. Marx (1967: 364) said: “the implements of labour, in the form of machinery, necessitate the substitution of natural forces for human force …” With rising organic composition of capital, the consumption of energy and other material resources tends to grow more rapidly than the population.
Moreover, as capitalist production expands, for the surplus value to be realized, the populations’ consumption must expand accordingly. Consumption has become increasingly “capital intensive” and requires the use of growing amounts of energy and other resources.
In the core states of the capitalist world system (or the “advanced capitalist states”), the so-called “services” account for more than two-thirds of the GDP. Some argue that as the economy moves towards “services” or “information” sectors, capitalism becomes increasingly “dematerialized” and dematerialization would allow capital accumulation to take place without rising consumption of material resources. In fact, some services such as transportation is closely related to material production and is highly energy-intensive. Other services, such as wholesale and retail, finance and insurance, government, education, and health care are non-productive sectors that do not generate surplus value by themselves. From the Marxist perspective, their “incomes” result from redistribution of the surplus value generated in the material production sectors.2
The so-called dematerialization in the core states to a large extent reflects the re-location of production capital to the periphery and semi-periphery and the redistribution of the global surplus value from the periphery and semi-periphery to the core. This type of dematerialization cannot be reproduced on a global scale.
Therefore, capitalist accumulation inevitably leads to rising consumption of energy and other resources. The global capitalist economy currently depends heavily on non-renewable resources for energy and raw materials. This is clearly unsustainable. Recycling and substitution of non-renewable resources by renewable resources help to slow down the depletion of non-renewable resources. However, recycling of non-renewable resources can never be complete, in many areas renewable resources cannot substitute for non-renewable resources (for example, in most cases metal products or plastics cannot be replaced by raw materials produced from agriculture), and the use of renewable resources is limited by the eco-system’s regenerative capacity. Moreover, the use of both non-renewable and renewable resources inevitably generate wastes and have environmental impacts, but the eco-system’s ability to assimilate the wastes generated by the human economy is limited (Hueseman 2003).
The endless pursuit of profit and accumulation is inherently unsustainable and will sooner or later lead to a general environmental crisis. Attempts to provide technical solutions to the environmental problems are subject to the limit of basic physical laws (such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics) and any technical gains in “eco-efficiency” (reduction of environmental impact per unit of output) would soon be overwhelmed by relentless capital accumulation.
Environmental problems represent social costs that are not taken into account by capitalists’ private calculations. Individual capitalists are not motivated to clean the environment or develop alternative resources. This problem of “externality” can be somewhat alleviated by government regulations within nation states. However, capitalism is a global system but there is not a world government that can effectively represent the collective interest of the global capitalists as a whole. Instead, individual capitalist states are motivated primarily to maximize their national rates of accumulation to prevail in global competition. There is no effective mechanism to regulate the global environment. Even if some international agreements can be reached on certain environmental issues, there would be strong incentives for individual states to “cheat” or simply ignore the agreements.

China and the Global Energy Crisis

At the current trend, in a few years China will replace US to become the world’s largest economy (measured at purchasing power parity). China’s rapid economic growth has led to rapid increase in demand for energy and other resources. Between 1980 and 2000, China’s energy consumption grew at an average annual rate of 3.9 percent. Since 2000, however, China’s energy consumption has grown at 10.9 percent a year (Cui 2006: 97-99).
China already accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s energy consumption. At the current rate, China will account for about 30 percent of the world’s energy consumption in 10 years, and more than half of the world’s energy consumption in 20 years. This is clearly impossible! Moreover, China’s rapid growth in energy consumption has greatly accelerated the depletion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources, and may soon precipitate a global energy crisis.
Fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) provide 80 percent of the world’s energy supply (IEA 2006). About a quarter of the energy supply from fossil fuels is used for electricity generation, and another 10 percent is used by services and household sectors (for space heating, cooking, etc.). In principle (though with practical difficulties), fossil fuels used for electricity generation can be replaced by nuclear or renewable energy sources. Energy use in services and household sectors may be provided by electricity generated by nuclear or renewable sources. However, in other areas, fossil fuels cannot be substituted by electricity, and are indispensable for the operations of the global capitalist economy.
Oil is essential for the transportation system based on cars and trucks. Electric cars or fuel cells made from hydrogen have serious limitations and cannot realistically replace oil on any large scale.3 While the rail system could be operated with electric trains, inter-continental long-distance transportation by air and by ocean (with the possible exception of some very expensive, nuclear-powered ships) completely depends on oil. Without inter-continental long-distance transportation, the entire global capitalist economy based on the worldwide division of labor and trade would collapse.
Oil provides an indispensable fuel for heavy equipment used in agriculture, mining, and construction. Oil, natural gas, and coal are essential inputs for the production of fertilizers, plastics, and other chemicals (Heinberg 2006: 4-7). Many high-temperature, high-pressure industrial processes depend on coal and natural gas. Coal is used as fuel and an essential input for about two-thirds of the world’s steel production (Australian Coal Association 2007). Without fossil fuels, not only that the world economy will lose a major source of energy supply, but much of the modern industry and agriculture will cease to function.
Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources and will inevitably be depleted with endless capital accumulation and consumption of resources. There is growing consensus that the world’s oil production is likely to peak soon and start to decline irreversibly. Heinberg (2006: 23) summarizes the studies on peak oil dates, which range from now to 2030. Most independent studies predict a peak oil date before 2015, and those who predict a date after 2015 are institutions related to the oil industry or the US government. Campbell (2005: 209-216) expects the world natural gas production to peak by 2025, staying on a high plateau until 2045, and then decline precipitously. Laherrere (2004) predicts that the world natural gas production will peak around 2030.
The conventional wisdom is that the world’s coal reserves are relatively abundant and will last about 150 years at the current production rate. However, a recent study by the German Energy Watch Group (2007) finds that the world’s coal production is likely to peak around 2025. Another study by the Institute for Energy based in Netherlands concludes that the world reserves of economically recoverable coal are decreasing fast and coal production costs are steadily rising all over the world.4
Nuclear energy and most of the renewable energy sources can only generate electricity. Biomass is the only renewable source that can be used as substitutes for fossil fuels in the making of liquid or gaseous fuels, and various chemical products. But the potential of biomass is limited by the available quantity of productive land. It is already difficult for the world agriculture to meet the rising demand for food from the growing population (to be discussed in the next section). There is little additional land available to grow energy crops. Trainer (2004: Chapter 5) estimates that if 600 million hectares or about 40 percent of the world’s total cropland is used to grow biomass, it can produce just enough liquid fuel to replace about 20 percent of the world’s current oil consumption.
The large-scale production of biomass is ecologically destructive and unsustainable. It requires large amounts of chemical fertilizers and water, and causes serious soil erosion. To grow biomass, agribusinesses have converted forests, range, and wetland into cropland, destroying rainforests, leading to water pollution and water depletion, reducing biodiversity, and contributing to global warming. As both the growing of biomass and the conversion of biomass into useful fuel require large amounts of energy, biomass has low energy returns and some, such as ethanol made from corn, may have negative energy returns, that is, it takes more energy to make the ethanol than is contained in the ethanol (Heinberg 2006: 93-98; Friedemann 2007).
Nuclear energy is based on non-renewable resources. Breeder reactors have serious safety, security, and pollution problems (Trainer 2004: Chapter 9). Nuclear fusion still needs to overcome some serious technical obstacles, will not be practical for at least several decades, and will be very expensive even when it becomes technically feasible (Trainer 2004: Chapter 9; Crooks 2006). Conventional nuclear fission burner reactors use uranium, which is a limited resource. According to the Energy Watch Group (2006), the world’s proved uranium reserves will be exhausted in 30 years at the current rate of consumption and all possible resources of uranium will be exhausted in 70 years. The expansion of nuclear energy is further limited by the slow pace of building new nuclear reactors.
Solar and wind electricity require the use of large amounts of land and are unlikely to provide more than a fraction of the world’s future energy supply due to the constraints of available land. Solar and wind are variable and intermittent sources of energy and cannot serve as the basic or base-load source of electricity. It is estimated that solar and wind electricity may have a peak capacity up to 20 percent of the installed base-load electricity capacity or supply up to 10 percent of the total electricity production (Lightfoot and Green 2002). The large-scale use of solar and wind electricity could also have serious environmental impacts (Heusemann 2003). Moreover, the production of the equipment required for solar and wind electricity generation as well as the construction of the necessary infrastructure depends on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources (Kunstler 2005: 121-131).
Hydropower is limited by the available sites and has serious environmental problems (Heinberg 2003: 149-150; Kunstler 2005: 119-121). Other renewable sources, such as tide, wave, and geothermal, are unlikely to make a large worldwide contribution (Heinberg 2003: 151-154; Hayden 2004: 209-212; Trainer 2006).
Figure 1 projects the world’s energy supply over the course of this century. Some of the key assumptions are: the world’s oil production peaks in 2010; natural gas production peaks in 2025; coal production peaks in 2025; nuclear electricity peaks in 2050; biomass uses up to 40 percent of the world’s cropland; intermittent sources of electricity (solar and wind) generate up to 20 percent of the world’s total electricity production. Despite substantial increases in the energy supply from renewable sources, the world’s total energy supply peaks in 2025 and declines thereafter.
Between 1960 and 2004, the world’s energy efficiency (economic output per unit of energy use) increased at an average annual rate of 0.9 percent. Since the first oil crisis, there has been some acceleration in efficiency improvement. Between 1973 and 2004, the world’s energy efficiency improved at an average annual rate of 1.3 percent. Lightfoot and Green (2001) conducted a sector by sector study of the long-term technical potential of energy efficiency improvement in the world economy, and concluded that the maximum potential energy efficiency is between 250 percent and 330 percent of the world average energy efficiency in 1990. Assuming all of the efficiency improvement potential is to be realized before 2100, then the average annual growth rate of energy efficiency between 1990 and 2100 would be between 0.8 percent and 1.1 percent. This paper assumes that the energy efficiency in the world economy improves at an annual rate of 1.5 percent.
China depends on coal for about 70 percent of the energy consumption. The Energy Watch Group (2007) points out that China’s coal production could peak around 2015 and declines rapidly after the peak. Figure 2 projects the growth of per capita GDP in China and the rest of the world based on the assumption that coal production in China will peak in 2015 and China’s imports of energy will rise to 10 percent of the world’s total fuel consumption (consumption of oil, natural gas, coal, and biomass as fuel, not including their use for electricity generation). China’s energy efficiency is assumed to grow 1.7 percent a year and the rest of the world’s GDP is simply calculated as the difference between the word’s GDP and China’s GDP. Population projections are based on United Nations (2007).
If China manages to maintain rapid economic growth after the world oil production peak with rising energy imports, the rest of the world will have to suffer years of economic disaster. After 2015, with the decline of coal production, the Chinese economy will collapse and suffer from irreversible decline after 2030. In short, the global energy crisis will translate into a prolonged world economic depression. However, energy crisis is just one among many aspects of the global environmental crisis that the world will have to confront in the coming decades.

China and the Global Food Crisis

Over the second half of the 20th Century, the world experienced rapid increases in food production and population. The “success” of modern agriculture depends on mechanization, chemical inputs (such as fertilizers and pesticides), irrigation, and high-yield seeds (that are responsive to chemical fertilizers and irrigation). Modern agriculture is therefore built upon cheap oil and natural gas. About ten calories of energy are required to deliver just one calorie of food to the consumer in an advanced capitalist country (Pfeiffer 2006: 19-27).
However, all elements of modern agriculture are now suffering from diminishing returns. Mechanized tillage, use of chemical fertilizers, and large-scale monoculture contribute to soil erosion. Pests are developing generic resistance to pesticides. Perennial irrigation leads to waterlogging and salinization and depletes aquifers. Due to land degradation and the growth of cities, the world’s total area of arable land has peaked and is now declining. The “solutions” that capitalist corporations and governments are trying to provide, such as genetically modified crops, threaten to bring about ecological disasters (Goldsmith 2005; Pfeiffer 2006; Heinberg 2006: 49-54).
The world per capita grain production peaked in 1984 (Figure 3).5 Under the current trend, the world’s per capita grain production would fall to between 200 and 250 kilograms a year by the second half of the 21st Century. These are levels that could lead to worldwide starvation. Separately, due to persistent over-fishing, the world’s fish stocks are expected to collapse before 2050, making fishing impossible and depriving the world’s population of a major source of protein (Harvey 2006).
As soil erosion, land degradation, depletion of aquifers, and loss of biodiversity develop, at some point, the world food production could collapse, declining rapidly and irreversibly. Given the dependence of modern agriculture on fossil fuels, the coming peak of the world oil and natural gas production could be the trigger that starts the collapse. Food is the basis of survival and civilization, a general collapse of the world food production would make the depression scenarios projected in Figure 1 and 2 appear to be “optimistic.”
Between the late 1950s and the 1970s, the Chinese agriculture was organized according to socialist principles. Land and the basic means of production were owned collectively by local communities (organized in “people’s communes”), income was shared more or less equally, and agricultural production was incorporated into national planning. After serious initial failures, collective agriculture led to steady increases in production and built the physical and social infrastructure required for sustainable improvement in quality of life. The commune system was particularly effective in meeting the population’s basic needs with limited material resources. By the late 1970s, China’s health and education indicators were better than many middle-income countries (Wen and Li 2006).
In the early 1980s, China’s agriculture was in effect privatized. Initially, agricultural production grew rapidly as the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides surged. But as the use of chemical inputs suffered diminishing returns and the physical infrastructure built in the collective era was left to deteriorate, food production started to stagnate. Per capita grain production peaked in 1996 (Figure 4).
Global warming could prove to be particularly devastating to China’s environment and agriculture. Water scarcity and extreme weather could reduce China’s crop production by 10 percent by 2030, and by up to 37 percent after 2050 (ASPO USA 2007).

China and the Global Climate Change

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report provides decisive evidence that human activities (fossil fuel use and agriculture) have led to rising global atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and contributed to global warming (IPCC 2007a).
Under the current trend, the global average temperature would rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius over this century, leading to floods, droughts, falling agricultural productivity, rising sea levels, and massive extinction of species. If the global average temperature were to rise by more than 2 degrees within this century or more than 3 degrees above the pre-industrial level, the earth’s eco-systems could start to collapse. The oceans and the terrestrial biosphere would become net carbon sources, causing unstoppable global warming. James Lovelock, the world’s leading earth system scientist, told the reporter that most of the world would become scrub and desert and most of the oceans would be denuded of life, and a massive die-off could reduce the world population by more than 80 percent (IPCC 2007a and 2007b; Leake 2007).
To prevent the global temperature from rising by more than 3 degrees above the pre-industrial level, global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide should stabilize at about 450 ppm (parts per million). For this to be achieved, global cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide over the 21st Century should be no more than 2460 billion tons if no climate carbon cycle feedback effects are taken into account or no more than 1800 billion tons if feedback effects are taken into account. As carbon dioxide emissions associated with land use are about 6 billion tons a year, this implies that the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels over the 21st Century must be no more than 1200-1860 billion tons (IPCC 2007a and 2007c).
The world is now emitting carbon dioxide from fossil fuels at an annual rate of 27 billion tons (implying total emissions of 2700 billion tons over the course of a century). Currently, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is rising at more than 2 ppm a year. At this rate, the critical limit of 450 ppm will be breached in 35 years.
In 2004, China emitted 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or 18 percent of the world’s total emissions. Between 2000 and 2004, China’s carbon dioxide emissions grew at an average annual rate of 14 percent and China is expected to overtake the US in 2007 or 2008 to become the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter (“Carbon Emissions to Rise 59 Per Cent,” Financial Times, May 22, 2007, p. 2). If China’s emissions were to grow 10 percent a year, then by 2020 China alone would emit about twice as much as all of the advanced capitalist countries combined.
The Kyoto Protocol designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in advanced capitalist countries has largely failed. New global efforts to address global warming have to face considerable obstacles. The world’s largest emitters, such as the US, China, and India are particularly unenthusiastic. At this point, it is not even clear whether a new climate treaty will replace the Kyoto Protocol in time. Even if some international agreement can be reached, the goals that could be agreed upon by all the major national governments might turn out to be too little, too late, and there will be no guarantee that even a watered down agreement can be effectively and adequately implemented.
The “good” news is that with the depletion of fossil fuels, the world’s capitalist economies will be forced to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Based on the assumptions used to project the world energy supply in Figure 1, if the world’s production of fossil fuels were to peak in the coming one or two decades, then over the course of this century, the cumulative consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas would be 288.7, 180.9, and 183.3 billion tons of oil equivalent respectively. According to IEA (2006), each ton (of oil equivalent) of coal emits 3.83 tons of carbon dioxide, each ton of oil emits 2.80 tons, and each ton of natural gas emits 2.28 tons. Based on these rates, the total emissions of carbon dioxide over the course of this century would amount to 2030 billion tons, or several hundred billion tons more than what would be required to prevent catastrophic global warming. Thus, to prevent climate catastrophe, even more drastic cuts in world energy consumption than is suggested in Figure 1 will be required.
Latest evidence suggests that the earth’s self-regulating system might already start to fail. The Southern Ocean, which is the world’s biggest carbon sink (accounting for 15 percent of the carbon absorption potential), has become effectively saturated. This new finding suggests that both the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the global temperature are likely to rise faster than is previously anticipated, making it much more difficult to stabilize the global climate (McCarthy 2007).
Centuries of relentless capitalist accumulation have set the humanity on the course of total self-destruction. The very survival of the humanity and civilization is at stake. There is no possibility that the crisis can be avoided or overcome within the historical framework of capitalism.
To rebuild the human society on an ecologically sustainable basis, there must be an economic system that is based on the production for use, to meet people’s basic needs, rather than one that is oriented towards endless pursuit of profit and accumulation. If some of the productive forces achieved in the capitalist era are to be preserved, an economic system based on production for use has to be some form of socialist planned economy. However, the historical lessons of the 20th Century suggest that planning limited at local or national levels will be inadequate. To overcome the global environmental crisis and save the humanity, resources have to be re-allocated with rational planning on a global scale. To accomplish this, there must be a world socialist planned economy based on the international solidarity of all the working people.


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1 Strictly speaking, the organic composition of capital refers to the ratio of the value of the means of production employed to the value of labor power and the technical composition of capital refers to the physical ratio of the means of production to labor power. For simplicity, this paper makes no distinction between the two definitions of composition of capital. For the organic and technical composition of capital and implications for capitalist accumulation, see Marx (1967: 574-606).

2 Publicly run education and health care do not produce surplus value for the capitalists (though they certainly create conditions for the reproduction of labor force that is essential for capitalism) and are “non-productive” in the capitalist sense. Education and health care institutions run by private capitalists do generate surplus value though their operations depend on material inputs such as buildings and equipment produced in the material production sectors.

3 On limitations of electric cars and hydrogen, see Heinberg (2003: 146-149); Trainer (2004: Chapter 6); and Kunstler (2005: 110-116; 125-126).

4 The study has not yet been published. For a summary of the study’s findings, see Heinburg (2007).

5 Data for world grain production from 1950 to 2006 are from Earth Policy Institute (2007).

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