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. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a few announcements in this context, including an additional allocation of Rs 19,500 crore for solar PV modules. She also talked of co-firing of 5-7 per cent of biomass pellets in thermal power plants, “sovereign green bonds” and a “battery-swapping policy”. These are positive steps towards making the energy and transport sectors less polluting.
Her announcements on agriculture, however, were rather limited. Agriculture contributes 73 per cent of the country’s methane emissions. India has kept away from the recent EU-US pledge to slash methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, despite the country being the world’s third largest emitter of methane. The FM did talk of chemical-free natural farming in a 5-km wide corridor along the river Ganga, support for millets, and increased domestic production of oilseeds and kisan drones. These are welcome steps. But they do not assure us that the environmental damage already wrought by the sector can be undone. The damage is largely a result of the various kinds of subsidies — on urea, canal irrigation and power for irrigation — as well as the minimum support prices (MSP) and procurement policies concentrated on a few states and largely on two crops, rice, and wheat.
We also know that as of January 1, the stocks of wheat and rice in the country’s central pool were four times higher than the buffer stocking requirement. In fact, rice stocks with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are seven times the buffer norms for rice. This is despite the record distribution of rice in the PDS and record exports of rice (17.7MMT) in 2020-21. The financial value of these excessive grain stocks is Rs 2.14 lakh crore, of which Rs 1.66 lakh crore is because of excess rice stocks — as per the economic cost of rice and wheat given by the FCI. Interestingly, the Economic Survey 2021-22 gives an economic cost of rice and wheat higher than that reported by FCI. If one uses the survey’s figures, the value of excess stocks jumps to Rs 2.56 lakh crore, with rice accounting for approximately Rs 2 lakh crore.
All this does not just reflect inefficient use of scarce capital, the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) embedded in these stocks is also large. As per the national GHG inventory, the sector emits 408 MMT of carbon-dioxide equivalent and rice cultivation is the third highest source (17.5 per cent) of GHG emissions in Indian agriculture after enteric fermentation (54.6 per cent) and fertiliser use (19 per cent). Paddy fields are anthropogenic sources of atmospheric nitrous oxide and methane, which have been reckoned as 273 and 80-83 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in driving temperature increase in 20 years’ (Sixth Assessment Report IPCC 2021). The amount of methane emitted from paddy fields of India is 3.396 teragram per year or 71.32 MMT carbon dioxide equivalent. Two important points need to be noted here: First, India does not report nitrous oxide emissions in its national GHG inventories. There is scientific evidence that intermittent flooding reduces water and methane emissions but increases nitrous oxide emissions. Thus, lowering of methane emissions through controlled irrigation does not necessarily mean net low emissions. Second, emissions due to burning rice residues, application of fertilisers, production of fertilisers for rice, energy operations like harvesting, pumps, processing, transportation are not accounted for in the GHG emissions in rice production.
A study by Vetter et al. (2017) used the Cool Farm Tool (CFT) model to estimate annual GHG emissions by crops from production to the farm gate. It reported emissions of 5.65 kg carbon dioxide equivalent of GHG per kg of rice. Moreover, paddy fields require about 4,000 cubic meters of water per tonne of rice for irrigation. Even if half of that percolates back to groundwater, excess stocks of 46 MMT of rice embed about 92 billion cubic meters of water as well as 260 MMT of carbon dioxide equivalent. According to the IMF, the world needs a carbon tax of $75 per tonne by 2030 to reduce emissions to a level consistent with a 2 degree Celsius warming target. India does not have an explicit carbon-price yet, but many countries have begun to implement carbon pricing. Sweden leads the pack with a carbon price as high as $137 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent while EU is at $50/tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent. It is high time for India to announce indicative carbon pricing and create a vibrant carbon market to incentivise green growth in Amrit Kaal.
The Economic Survey 2021- 22 points out that the country is over-exploiting its ground water resource (see map), particularly in the northwest and some parts of south India. This is primarily due to paddy cultivation on 44 million hectares. This has helped India achieve food security, but it’s time now to save groundwater and the environment. This calls for revisiting policies to subsidise power and fertilisers, MSP and procurement and reorient them towards minimising GHG emissions. Farmer groups and the private sector can be mobilized to develop carbon markets in agriculture, both at the national and international levels, which can reward farmers in cash for switching from carbon-intensive crops such as rice to low-carbon-intensive crops or improving farming practices in rice systems to lower GHG emissions. Such a move towards “net-zero” agriculture will give India a “climate smart” agriculture in Amrit Kaal. And, if we can protect productivity levels with a low-carbon footprint, it will help India to access global markets too.
Gulati is Infosys Chair professor for agriculture and Singh is senior fellow at ICRIER