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[Burning Issue] ‘Climate Smart’ Agriculture and GHG Emissions

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Context

In the backdrop of the 2070 carbon neutrality target set by India at the CoP26 in Glasgow, the Union Budget for 2022-23 has listed “climate action” and “energy transition” as one of the four priorities for the Amrit Kaal.

Agriculture contributes 73 percent of the country’s methane emissions. India has kept away from the recent EU-US pledge to slash methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, despite the country being the world’s third-largest emitter of methane.

India’s status with respect to emissions

  • World Air Quality Report 2020: 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India and Delhi is the world’s most polluted capital.
  • Global Carbon Atlas: India ranks third in total greenhouse gas emissions by emitting annually around 2.6 billion tonnes (Bt) CO2eq.
  • India’s per capita emission is just 1.8 tonnes, significantly lower than the world average of 4.4 tonnes per capita.
  • India ranked seventh on the list of countries most affected due to extreme weather events, incurring losses of $69 billion (in PPP) in 2019 (Germanwatch, 2021).
  • In India, energy sector contributes highest emission (44 %), followed by manufacturing and construction sector (18 %), agriculture, forestry and land use sectors (14 %), with remaining being shared by transport, industrial processes and waste sectors.
  • Share of agriculture in total emissions has gradually declined from 28% (1994) to 14% (2016).
  • But in absolute terms, emissions from agriculture have increased to about 650 Mt CO2 in 2018, which is similar to China’s emissions from agriculture.
  • Agricultural emissions in India are primarily from livestock sector (54.6 %), use of nitrogenous fertilizers (19 %), rice cultivation (17.5 %), livestock management (6.9 %) and burning of crop residues (2.1 %).

Agriculture and Greenhouse gases

  • Farming in particular releases significant amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, two powerful greenhouse gases.
  • Methane is produced by livestock during digestion due to enteric fermentation and is released via belches.
  • It can also escape from stored manure and organic waste in landfills. Livestock is alone responsible for 44% of methane emissions.
  • 53% of Nitrous oxide emissions are an indirect product of organic and mineral nitrogen fertilizers. Fertilizers rich in nitrogen pollute water and threaten the aquatic ecosystem.

Monoculture

  • Monocultures along with pesticides and herbicides lead to the loss of biodiversity. Monoculture cropping systems leave soil bare for much of the year, rely on synthetic fertilizer, and plow fields regularly.
  • These practices leave soils low in organic matter and prevent formation of deep, complex root systems leading to reduced water holding capacity.
  • Clearing uncultivated land for farming can lead to the destruction of natural ecosystems, which may have a devastating effect on the local wildlife and biodiversity and the micro-climate.
  • Many agricultural sectors need large amounts of water, which may cause water scarcity and drought.

Reasons for agricultural emissions to be so high

  • Subsidies: The damage is largely a result of the various kinds of subsidies — on urea, canal irrigation and power for irrigation.
  • The Minimum Support Prices (MSP) and procurement policies concentrated on a few states and largely on two crops, rice, and wheat has led to their overproduction.
  • Unplanned wheat and rice production: As of 1 January 2022, the stocks of wheat and rice in the country’s central pool were four times higher than the buffer stocking requirement.
  • Despite the record distribution of rice in the Public Distribution System (PDS) and exports in 2020-21, the rice stocks with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are seven times the buffer norms for rice.
  • This data not only reflects inefficient use of scarce capital, but also the large amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) embedded in these stocks.

Changing Climate Affecting Agriculture

  • Extreme heat: Crops need suitable soil, water, sunlight, and heat to grow. However, extreme heat events and reductions in precipitation and water availability have hampered the crop productivity.
  • Changing Rainfall Patterns: Rainfall patterns have already begun shifting across the country, and such changes are expected to intensify over the coming years.
    • This is likely to mean more intense periods of heavy rain and longer dry periods, even within the same regions.
  • Floods: Flooding in many agricultural regions of the country have been witnessed and these floods have devastated crops and livestock, accelerated soil erosion and have polluted water.

What is climate-smart agriculture?

  • Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) is an approach to help the people who manage agricultural systems respond effectively to climate change. 
  • The CSA approach pursues the triple objectives of:
    • Increased Productivity: Produce more and better food to improve nutrition security and boost incomes, especially of 75% of the world’s poor who live in rural areas and mainly rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.
    • Enhanced Resilience: Reduce vulnerability to drought, pests, diseases and other climate-related risks and shocks, and improve capacity to adapt and grow in the face of longer-term stresses like shortened seasons and erratic weather patterns.
    • Reduced Emissions: Pursue lower emissions for each calorie or kilo of food produced, avoid deforestation from agriculture and identify ways to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere.
  • Different elements of climate-smart agricultural systems include:
    1. Management of farms, crops, livestock, aquaculture and capture fisheries to balance near-term food security and livelihoods needs with priorities for adaptation and mitigation.
    2. Ecosystem and landscape management to conserve ecosystem services that are important for food security, agricultural development, adaptation and mitigation.
    3. Services for farmers and land managers to enable better management of climate risks/impacts and mitigation actions.
    4. Changes in the wider food system including demand-side measures and value chain interventions that enhance the benefits of CSA.

What are the issues raised in global negotiation on climate change?

  • Nations are still quibbling about historical global emitters and who should take the blame and fix it.
  • Global negotiations on climate change often talk about emissions on a per capita basis and the emission intensity of GDP.
  • Per capita emission: Of the top five absolute emitters, the US has the highest per capita emissions (15.24 tonnes), followed by Russia (11.12 tonnes).
  • India’s per capita emissions is just 1.8 tonnes, significantly lower than the world average of 4.4 tonnes per capita.
  • If one takes emissions per unit of GDP, of the top five absolute emitters, China ranks first with 0.486 kg per 2017 PPP $ of GDP, which is very close to Russia at 0.411 kg per 2017 PPP $ of GDP.
  • India is slightly above the world average of 0.26 (kg per 2017 PPP $ of GDP) at 0.27 kg, while the USA is at 0.25, and Japan at 0.21.
  • In our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted in 2016, India committed to “reduce emission intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 per cent by 2030 from 2005 level.”

Way Forward

  1. Reward farmers through carbon credit: A carbon policy for agriculture must aim not only to reduce its emissions but also reward farmers through carbon credits which should be globally tradable.
  2. Focus on livestock: With the world’s largest livestock population (537 million), India needs better feeding practices with smaller numbers of cattle by raising their productivity.
  3. Efficient fertiliser use: Agricultural soils are the largest single source of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions in the national inventory.
  4. An alternative for better and efficient fertiliser use would be to promote fertigation and subsidise soluble fertilisers.
  5. Incentives and subsidies: The government should incentivise and give subsidies on drips for fertigation, switching away from rice to corn or less water-intensive crops, and promoting soluble fertilisers at the same rate of subsidy as granular urea.
  6. Revisiting Policies: The Economic Survey 2021-22 points out that the country is over-exploiting its ground water resource, particularly in the northwest and some parts of south India which is primarily due to paddy cultivation on 44 million hectares.
  1. This calls for revisiting policies to subsidise power and fertilisers, MSP and procurement and reorient them towards minimising GHG emissions.
  2. Three-Pronged Approach for GHG Emissions: India has the potential to cut 18% of its annual greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture and livestock sector. 50% of this reduction could be achieved by implementing these three measures:
    1. Efficient use of fertiliser
    2. Adoption of zero-tillage
    3. Management of water used to irrigate paddy
  3. Carbon Pricing: According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the world needs a carbon tax of $75 per tonne by 2030 to reduce emissions to a level consistent with a 2℃ warming target.
    1. Many countries have begun to implement carbon pricing; Sweden leads the pack with a carbon price as high as $137 per tonne of CO2 equivalent while EU is at $50/tonne of CO2 equivalent.
    2. It is high time for India to announce indicative carbon pricing and create a vibrant carbon market to incentivise green growth in Amrit Kaal.
  4. Increasing Farmer Awareness: The right approach is to give the rice-producing-farmers the right advice and incentives at the right time so that they add only as much water or fertilisers as the rice plant needs.
    1. Rice farming shall be made more sustainable, without having a negative impact on farmers livelihood.
  5. Sustainable Dairy Practices: There is a need to proactively ramp up sustainable dairy practices, which may include:
    1. Realising the existing potentials for GHG emission reduction through technological and farm best practices interventions and solutions.
    2. Reducing its demand for resources by better integrating livestock into the circular bio-economy.
    3. This can be achieved by recycling and recovering nutrients and energy from animal waste.
    4. Closer integration of livestock with crops and agro-industries at various scales to make use of low value and low-emission biomass.

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