How can I help my grandfather to grow rice more efficiently?

My grandfather is a farmer in India.  He grows rice. And like all of us shares some responsibility for carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change.

I work in policy and innovation at the Carbon Trust in the UK. I find ways to reduce carbon emissions around the world, including in India. So as the world gathers in Paris trying to come to a deal to curb dangerous climate change, I’ve been thinking about what can be done practically to help farmers like my grandfather cut their carbon emissions.

Although the agricultural sector supports millions in India - providing both food and jobs - the continued and growing reliance on groundwater abstraction threatens land productivity and the long term security of water resources.

India extracts 150,000 cubic metres of groundwater for irrigation, which makes it the largest user of groundwater in the world.

This has resulted in large quantities of carbon emissions.

In the year 2000 the emissions in India just from irrigation pumps for rice was almost 59 million tonnes of CO2. To put this into perspective, the total emissions from agriculture in Scotland (where I studied) in the same year was just over 9 million tonnes. And since then the population of India has grown by more than 240 million people.

Agriculture accounts for up to 20 percent of total electricity consumption in India. This electricity is provided to all farmers at a very cheap price, thanks to high levels of subsidies. In principle this sounds like a great way for a government to support an important sector, particularly one which supports many rural communities where the majority of people are involved in subsistence agriculture. But taking a whole system view this has a number of negative knock-on effects.

Most importantly, no revenue is generated from this large constituent of electricity users. This leads to the State Energy Boards, which controls the energy distribution network, being laden with massive debt. For example, the State Energy Board in Tamil Nadu is committed to 12,000 crore rupees per year to pay down its debt (for those that are unfamiliar a crore is equivalent to 10 million rupees, so this is roughly US$1.8 billion). To put into perspective is twice the state government’s expenditure on health or education.

This debt means there are limited funds to invest into new energy infrastructure. The reality of this situation is that 4-5 hour power cuts are a normal feature of everyday village life. In addition, the levels of losses in the transmission and distribution of electricity can be as high as 25 percent, making cost recovery even more difficult.

Maintenance costs to the farmers are high. The erratic and low quality power causes stresses on motors leading to more frequent replacements. But still the temptation for the farmers is to focus on the perceived benefits of having free power without fully appreciating the downsides.

A further knock on effect is that even during the frequent periods of blackouts, crops still require timely irrigation so farmers hire diesel irrigation pumps. For many years India has not only provided cheap electricity to farmers but has also been awash with heavily subsidised diesel.

The business case for renewables has also been hampered. Specifically, the uptake of solar powered irrigation pumps due to subsidies distorting the market.  The more diesel is priced at a fair market level then the more attractive solar becomes.

But changes are happening. Last year Prime Minister Narendra Modi eliminated state control of diesel prices for the first time in over a decade, while also increasing prices for natural gas.  It was a bold move which received mixed reactions, but it was hoped that this change would result in savings over time that could be used for wider public investment and improvements.

The agricultural sector in India has a powerful lobby and the promise of subsidised electricity can make or break elections in many regions. Despite the exposure to massive debt this presents a serious political challenge for elected government representatives.

Although subsidies for electricity and diesel have had negative feedback loops on the overall efficiency of farming, there remains a very compelling case to subsidise solar irrigation pumps. Then farmers could not only reduce their reliance on the grid, but also enable them to put energy back into the grid creating - with the right incentives - a more distributed energy system.

Appropriate tariffs can encourage the right behaviours. In a world where farmers are not incentivised to conserve energy, irrigation equipment is frequently left on needlessly leading to excessive use of ground water. I have seen it happen myself on the farms of my grandfather and his neighbours. The Ministry for Groundwater then spends vast amounts of money on awareness campaigns to educate on the risks of overconsumption of groundwater. If energy bills were based on actual consumption, not on the horsepower of irrigation equipment, farmers would use pumps more efficiently. Furthermore, if feed-in-tariffs also allowed farmers using solar irrigation pumps to get paid for surplus electricity generated it is easy to see the cumulative benefit this could have on reducing India’s carbon emissions.

This skewed cost of energy also has a direct impact on the competitiveness of India’s large businesses and has direct implications for Prime Minister Modi’s high profile “Make in India” campaign.  Cross-subsidy is an inherent feature of India’s energy market. Farmers pay very little, consumers pay more than farmers (but still not a lot), but it is heavy industry which carries the financial burden on the cost of energy.

The story of farmers in India and the impact of energy subsidies epitomises the challenges of implementing a global deal to tackle climate change against a backdrop of competing national priorities. If we are going to make progress at the rate we need to then it is necessary to take a whole system view when dealing with energy transitions, working at the nexus of policy, regulation and technology.

What is essential in delivering a global deal is that the ambition is mirrored at a national level. This means ensuring that incentives are being driven in the right way to encourage behaviours compatible with low carbon future. And that will help my grandfather to grow rice more efficiently.


This article is published as part of the Carbon Trust's COP21 Blog Series: The Road to Paris is Paved with Good Intentions.

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