Low-carbon development in Indian agriculture: A missed opportunity?

  • Blog Post Date 12 April, 2013
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Olivier Charnoz

Agence Française de Développement


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Ashwini K. Swain

Centre for Policy Research


The agricultural sector is the largest contributor of Greenhouse Gases in India. Yet, it has not received due importance in India’s climate change mitigation strategy. This column says that India must prioritise the agriculture sector for domestic climate change mitigation if it is serious about its voluntary commitment to reduce the carbon intensity of its GDP by 20-25% of the 2005 level by 2020.

When it comes to global action on climate change mitigation, the agriculture sector is somehow undervalued (Swain and Charnoz 2012). Much of the attention and effort have been placed on industry, electricity and transportation sectors. Yet, agriculture is a major source of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) accounting for between 10 and 12% of global emissions (Smith et al 2007). If we add to this the emissions caused by deforestation for farming, fertiliser and pesticide manufacturing, and agricultural energy use, the sector becomes the single largest contributor to global emissions.

This is equally true in the case of India. Agriculture accounts for 17.6% of total emissions in the country (INCCA 2010). Further, by consuming a quarter of electricity, it is indirectly responsible for another 10% GHG. If we combine these figures with emissions caused by fertiliser and pesticide industries catering solely to agriculture, and use of diesel, the sector becomes the largest contributor of GHG in India. Agriculture, in India and globally, has the potential to be an important part of the solution by reducing and/ or removing a significant portion of sectoral emissions. Though there is no precise estimation of technical mitigation potential in the sector, it is being claimed to be as high as 100% of direct emissions from agriculture. On this ground, the sector merits prioritisation for low-carbon development.

Has agriculture received due importance in India’s climate change mitigation strategy and action? We do not believe so. Keeping with the global trend, India has been prioritising electricity, industries and transportation for low-carbon development. Whatever little effort has been put in agriculture, it is primarily technology driven, without a clear governance strategy. Will this narrow approach take Indian agriculture onto a low-carbon pathway?

An obscure national Mission

Under the provisions of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, India has launched a dedicated National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) to define its strategies for mitigation and adaptation to climate change1 within the agriculture sector. NMSA has been partially successful in identifying the larger challenges faced by Indian agriculture and how they will be exacerbated in a changing climate context. However, the strategies proposed to meet these challenges are largely drawn from past policies and remain highly technology oriented. Instead of modifying damaging practices, the approach is thus to use more energy efficient equipment – an approach that leaves untouched fundamental problems such as taming water demand or addressing unhealthy agricultural practices. One further consequence is that much of the proposed strategies target the big farmers, who can afford newer equipment, while the small and marginal farmers are left vulnerable. While the mission blueprint gives importance to efficiency in water use, it ignores overuse of chemical fertilisers, which is a major driver of rising demand for irrigation water. Though the mission is technology-driven, it neither clarifies how the technologies will be governed nor addresses the weak agricultural extension services2. Furthermore, absence of adequate credit and insurance facility may be a bottleneck for adoption of these technologies. NMSA lacks adequate regulatory framework required to meet climate change related challenges to agriculture. Finally, weak institutional and human capacity will be a key challenge for effective implementation of agricultural policy. Such an obscure strategy, that merely addresses a few adaptation concerns, certainly falls short of a low-carbon agriculture sector (Byravan and Rajan 2012).

Futility of ‘Pump Priming’

Simultaneously, under the National Mission on Enhanced Energy Efficiency, India has launched the Agricultural Demand-Side Management (AgDSM) programme to curb agricultural electricity consumption. Taking another narrow and technology-centric approach, the programme seeks to improve pump efficiency by replacing existing pumps with five-star-rated energy efficient pumps. Can these new pumps save energy? The goals seem to be far from the reality.

Considering the past experiences in Indian electricity, we are not very optimistic about the replacement of 18.5 million irrigation pumps installed across India. The proposed Energy Service Companies (ESCO) model3 of investment seems unrealistic and financially unviable; the energy service companies (potential investors) are taking their hands off actual implementation. Even if India manages to implement the AgDSM programme, there is no hope for energy saving. The new pumps being promoted are claimed to be capable of drawing more water with the limited electricity supplied to Indian farmers. Considering the fact that farmers need water, not electricity, and water demand is much higher than the current extractable quantity, improving pump efficiency will increase water use and thus, cause further depletion of groundwater table. We must not forget that a depleted water table requires raising the horsepower of irrigation pumps to draw water from further below. The addition of each horsepower means an increase in electricity consumption (Swain and Charnoz 2012).

Further, given that farmers will get the new pumps free of cost, the programme is vulnerable to political co-option. Public distribution schemes in India are full of such precedents. The fact that the first pilot project was implemented in the political constituency of the then federal power minister has raised eyebrows. Moreover, current farmers’ support to the programme is based on misleading promises by local authorities and politicians, that the new pumps will retrieve more water, which is far from certain. Can the programme be sustained when these promises fail? The consequences are likely to be dangerous and unaffordable, making the sector further vulnerable to climate change by aggravating the water problem.

Prioritising agriculture for domestic climate change mitigation

The agriculture sector in India contributes to one-sixth of the GDP, employs more than half of the labour force, and is a source of livelihood for two thirds of the population. The sector is not only the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, but also has the most potential for mitigation. Yet, in global climate negotiations, India maintained a long-standing position that any discussion on agriculture must be held in the realm of adaptation, not mitigation. This partly explains India’s domestic action for low-carbon development within the sector. India may resist inclusion of agriculture in the climate change mitigation debate at the global level, but it cannot afford to avoid these mitigation needs at the domestic level, particularly since adaptation and resilience are closely linked with and dependent on mitigation efforts.

There seems to be a growing consensus in developing countries on the importance of low-carbon development in the agriculture sector. About 60% of the countries that have proposed their Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have considered the sector as a way to reduce their GHG emission (Bockel 2011 et al). If India is serious about its voluntary commitment to reduce the carbon intensity of its GDP by 20-25% of the 2005 level by 2020, it must prioritise the agriculture sector for domestic climate change mitigation. In the present context, India needs to take a much wider approach cutting across energy, water and climate concerns in the sector. The priority should be managing water demand and use in agriculture. Simple modifications in agricultural practices that neither require technological innovation nor need large investment can produce better results than the current, narrow strategies. At the same time, the country needs to redesign its agricultural subsidy and procurement policies emphasising and incentivising efficient use of resources. Most of these measures will not only take the sector on a low-carbon pathway, but will also make the two-third agriculture dependent citizens resilient to climate change impacts, and secure their livelihood.


  1. Both mitigation and adaptation are responses to climatic changes. Within the agriculture sector, adaptation measures seek to reduce the vulnerability of the agriculture-dependent population so that they can cope with the effects of climate change. Mitigation actions seek to reduce or prevent GHG emissions in the sector so that the effects of climate change would reduce. Even if global GHG emissions are stabilised soon, the effects of climate change will last for many years. That makes it necessary to prepare for adaptation, while working on mitigation.
  2. Agricultural extension means application of scientific knowledge, modern tools and practices in agriculture through farmer ducation. Despite sustained public spending and several reform initiatives in past decades, the coverage, access and quality of agricultural extension service across India remains poor.
  3. Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) are commercial businesses that provide a wide range of comprehensive energy solutions including the design and implementation of energy saving projects, energy conservation and energy infrastructure. In the typical ESCO model of investment, the ESCO makes upfront investment for implementation of energy efficiency measures and in return, gets a percentage share of the savings accumulated over a certain period.

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