Consumptive water footprint and virtual water trade scenarios for China - with a focus on crop production, consumption and trade

L. Zhuo, Mesfin M. Mekonnen, Arjen Y. Hoekstra

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The study assesses green and blue water footprints (WFs) and virtual water (VW) trade in China under alternative scenarios for 2030 and 2050, with a focus on crop production, consumption and trade. We consider five driving factors of change: climate, harvested crop area, technology, diet, and population. Four scenarios (S1–S4) are constructed by making use of three of IPCC's shared socio-economic pathways (SSP1–SSP3) and two of IPCC's representative concentration pathways (RCP 2.6 and RCP 8.5) and taking 2005 as the baseline year. Results show that, across the four scenarios and for most crops, the green and blue WFs per tonne will decrease compared to the baseline year, due to the projected crop yield increase, which is driven by the higher precipitation and CO2 concentration under the two RCPs and the foreseen uptake of better technology. The WF per capita related to food consumption decreases in all scenarios. Changing to the less-meat diet can generate a reduction in the WF of food consumption of 44% by 2050. In all scenarios, as a result of the projected increase in crop yields and thus overall growth in crop production, China will reverse its role from net VW importer to net VW exporter. However, China will remain a big net VW importer related to soybean, which accounts for 5% of the WF of Chinese food consumption (in S1) by 2050. All scenarios show that China could attain a high degree of food self-sufficiency while simultaneously reducing water consumption in agriculture. However, the premise of realizing the presented scenarios is smart water and cropland management, effective and coherent policies on water, agriculture and infrastructure, and, as in scenario S1, a shift to a diet containing less meat.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-223
JournalEnvironment international
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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