From plate to plough: Making Indian agriculture less GHG emitting

From lowering livestock numbers while increasing productivity to getting rice to make way for maize, there are multiple action points policy must consider

From plate to plough: Making Indian agriculture less GHG emitting
A carbon policy for agriculture must aim to reduce its emissions as also reward farmers through carbon credits that are globally tradeable.

By Ashok Gulati & Purvi Thangaraj

The Sixth Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group-1, has issued a ‘code red’ to humanity as we rush towards a planet hotter by 1.5oC by 2040. The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (CoP26) in Glasgow from October 31–November 12, with a view to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. The minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupender Yadav, says the focus should be on climate finance in scope, scale and speed and transfer of green technologies at low costs.

Despite developed countries having collectively emitted more than their estimated emission allowances and keeping arguments of climate justice in mind, the world is already too late with on-ground action. Nations are still quibbling about historical emitters and who should take the blame and fix it. But, given 22 of the 30 most-polluted cities in the world are in India, it should be a major cause of concern for India. According to the Global Carbon Atlas, India ranks third in total greenhouse gas emissions, with ~2.6 billion tonnes (bt) CO2 equivalent, preceded by China (10 bt) and the US (5.4 bt), and followed by Russia (1.7 bt) and Japan (1.2 bt). Of these 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 are just 1.8 tonnes, significantly lower than the world average of 4.4 tonnes. But negotiators are not likely to be convinced by this argument of per capita emissions.

An alternative is to take emissions per unit of GDP. Of the top-5 absolute emitters, China ranks first with 0.486 kg per 2017 PPP $ of GDP, which is very close to Russia at 0.411 kg. India is slightly above the world average (0.26 kg) at 0.27 kg, while the US is at 0.25 kg, and Japan at 0.21 kg. But, India ranked 7th in the most affected countries due to extreme weather events, incurring losses of $69 billion (in PPP) in 2019 as per Germanwatch. This should be worrying.
In its Nationally Determined Contributions, India committed in 2016 to “reduce emission intensity of its GDP by 33-35% from the 2005 level by 2030”.

Sector-wise global emissions show that electricity and heat production, agriculture, forestry and other land use account for 50% of the emissions. But the largest chunk of the emissions pie in India comes from the energy sector, followed by manufacturing and construction sector (18%), and agriculture, forestry and land use sector (14%), with the remaining being shared by the transport, industrial processes and waste sector. The share of agriculture in total emissions has gradually declined from 28% in 1994 to 14% in 2016. However, in absolute terms, this has increased to ~650 million tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2018, similar to China’s agri-emissions. Indian agricultural emissions are primarily from the livestock sector (54.6%) in the form of methane emissions due to enteric fermentation and the use of nitrogenous fertilisers in agricultural soils (19%) which emit nitrous oxides; rice cultivation in anaerobic conditions accounts for 17.5%, followed by livestock management at 6.9% and burning of crop residues at 2.1%.

A carbon policy for agriculture must aim to reduce its emissions as also reward farmers through carbon credits that are globally tradeable. With the world’s largest livestock population (537 million), India needs better feeding practices with smaller numbers of cattle with higher productivity.

Rice cultivation on ~44 million hectares is the other culprit for methane emissions, especially in irrigated tracts of north-west India. While Direct Seeded Rice and alternative wet and dry practices can reduce carbon footprint in rice fields, the real solution lies in switching some area from rice to maize or other less water-guzzling crops. In this context, allowing corn for ethanol can help not only reduce our dependence on crude oil imports but also reduce carbon footprint. If we can device a system for rewarding farmers for this switch by making corn more profitable than paddy, it can be a game-changer. Global carbon markets are growing and India will do well to catch up fast.

Nitrous oxide emission from nitrogen-fertilisers’ use increased by approximately 358% between 1980-81 and 2014-15. An alternative for better and efficient fertiliser use would be to promote fertigation and subsidise soluble fertilisers. Almost 70% of the granular fertilisers that are thrown over plants are polluting the environment and leeching into the groundwater while polluting the same. Ultimately, the government should incentivise and give subsidy on drips for fertigation, switching away from rice to corn or less water-intensive crops, and promoting soluble fertilisers at same rate of subsidy as granular urea.

Gulati is Infosys Chair professor for Agriculture and Purvi is research assistant, ICRIER

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