After a lacklustre COP 25 in Madrid, the expectations from COP 26 in Glasgow (November 2020) are high, on an agreement on the carbon markets promised in Paris, on the recommendations of the report on the landmark Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA). Topics critical to agriculture are expected to be addressed by KJWA.
While agriculture remains vulnerable to climate change effects—low productivity and food production are areas of concern—it also contributes 23% to global GHG emissions. Economic development, growing population and poverty reduction will lead to a higher demand for cereals, proteinaceous food items, fruits and vegetables, triggering more intensive use of water and other natural resources. This will cause GHG emissions to spike. It needs to be understood that KJWA has the potential to transform agricultural and food systems, while enabling the overall achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Bold action is called for at COP 26.
According to the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2019, India, along with Russia and Turkey, is projected to surpass it sits NDC target emission levels by 15%, and has room to raise its NDC ambition significantly. Whether it engages fruitfully with the KJWA proposals remains to be seen.
FAO estimates that, while agriculture accounts for 70% of total global freshwater withdrawals, food production and supply chain consumes about 30% of global energy consumption. India has been witnessing fast depleting groundwater resources, resulting from widespread use of pump-sets for irrigation, powered by heavily subsidised electricity, and highly polluting diesel. Groundwater Year Book 2017-18 had estimated that almost the entire country is experiencing depletion in groundwater level, with the maximum decline in parts of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Telangana, and Maharashtra. A World Bank report had predicted that ~60% of aquifers in India will be in a critical state by 2032.
Perverse subsidies on farm power supply in India over the last four decades, have not only made irrigation by deep tube-well profitable for farmers, but have, in fact, incentivised wastage of energy, too. This has also been exacerbated by the skewed procurement policies in favour of rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryana. However, while this had led to significant increase in production and productivity of paddy and wheat in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh during the Green Revolution period, there is evidence of stagnation in productivity.
The Nabard-Icrier report, Water Productivity Mapping of Major Indian Crops, argues that Punjab and Haryana, which require more irrigation water input to produce unit output of paddy, are less suited for rice production, as compared to the eastern region. Therefore, the report has recommended re-aligning cropping pattern with available water resource endowments across states. One of the fallouts of the paddy-wheat cycle in Punjab and Haryana is the problem of paddy stubble burning and its toxic air pollution effect.
Watershed development is of critical importance, as is evident from the participatory watershed development programme being implemented by Nabard since 1992. Further, ITC’s Integrated Watershed Development showcases the role corporate sector can play in soil and moisture conservation.
Sustainable solutions for water use efficiency like System of Rice Intensification, Sustainable Sugarcane Initiative, Better Cotton Initiative with drip irrigation need to be mainstreamed. Further, precision agriculture through AI and IoT can contribute to meet the challenges to food security.
Electricity subsidy for irrigation needs to be phased out. A sustainable alternative is the use of solar energy for irrigation. A viable model of “solar trees” in farms where farmer producer organisations (FPOs) can own solar panels as source of irrigation and also income for farmers by selling power to the grid, needs to be promoted. This could necessitate tripartite agreements between FPOs, discoms (for power purchase) and banks (for financing FPOs). This model, along with ministry of non-renewable energy’s KUSUM scheme, Gujarat government’s Suryashakti Kisan Yojana, and other projects, would help achieve the target of 175 GW renewable energy by 2022. Experiments on solar-wind hybrid energy pump-sets also should be implemented on the ground and scaled up. However, there needs to be self-regulation through AI-based sensors in drawing of groundwater.
The Stern Review Report (2006) had called for urgent and transformative actions for addressing the challenges of adaptation and mitigation of climate change faced by agriculture. The Water-Energy-Food nexus approach of FAO envisions a balance between different goals, interests and needs of people and the environment in a sustainable manner. This approach enables demystification of the complex and dynamic interrelationships between water, energy and food, so that limited resources can be managed sustainably. Therefore, the Central and state governments in India, along with financial institutions, research agencies and corporate entities, need to provide adequate resources towards research and adoption of climate smart agriculture and WEF nexus approach, to enable the country to achieve SDGs by 2030. This should be at the top of India’s agenda at COP 26.