India can be a global leader in building a nature-positive economy

India’s total agriculture subsidies are likely to reach $45-50 billion in perpetuity by 2030. Repurposing it to support India’s 120 million smallholder farmers transition to regenerative agriculture can help generate system-scale impact by 2030 in a cost-neutral manner.

We are at an inflexion point in human history. Healthy and resilient ecosystems—the foundation of all life on land and below water—are threatened like never before. Human activities such as pollution, unsustainable use of land and sea, the exploitation of organisms, climate change, and the invasion of alien species, are leading to the decline and degradation of natural ecosystems at an unprecedented scale. A recent World Meteorological Organisation study predicts a 70 percent likelihood of the planet reaching 1.5°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels as early as in the next five years.

The transmission of diseases like Covid-19 between animals and humans threatens economic development, human and animal well-being, and ecosystem integrity. The current pandemic, which is currently hitting India hardest, reflects our connectedness to one another, and how actions and events in one part of the world affect us all. These connections make up the fabric of nature—weakening or removing one form of life impacts the entire biodiverse ecosystem, making species vulnerable to extinction and natural systems less resilient.

India at the climate crossroads

Cyclone Tauktae, the fifth strongest tropic cyclone on record in the Arabian Sea, is a harsh and grim reminder of India’s vulnerability to extreme climate events. In the last decade, the cyclonic disturbances over the Northern Indian Ocean (NIO) and particularly over the Bay of Bengal have affected more than 250 districts. Its associated hazards – floods and droughts are causing catastrophic damage to livelihoods and infrastructure. India now ranks first as one of the global flood hotspots, followed by China and the US. In 2019 alone, the country registered 16 extreme flood events, which affected almost 150 districts. Increased precipitation levels, storm surges and sea levels are a severe threat to infrastructure, amongst other fatalities. More than 200 minor and major Indian ports, handling 95 percent of the country’s trade by volume and 70 percent by value, are at credible risk from climate disturbances.  

India’s climate vulnerability is further driven by its high levels of socioeconomic deprivation and dependence on a climate-sensitive sector like agriculture. Precipitation, temperature changes, and evaporation affect the soil moisture, soil water content, run-off and erosion, biodiversity, soil organic carbon, and nitrogen content. Organic matter content in the topsoil is already less than 0.5 percent in most parts of the country when it should be a minimum of 2.5-3 percent. Extreme climate events have contributed to a sharp decline in crop production, and India stands to lose 10-40 percent in crop production by the turn of the century. Apart from soil biology, climate change disrupts the natural balance of soil chemistry and increases the spread of pests and weeds.

The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees, further stresses that deep reductions in non-CO2 climate forcers, mainly air pollutants like methane and black carbon, are extremely crucial. Air pollution is one of the largest causes of morbidity and mortality globally, more so in India. Air pollution led to 1.7 million premature deaths, and 21 of the world’s worst-polluted 30 cities are located here in India.

It also puts a great burden on the Indian economy, causing losses of $95 billion every year, equivalent to 3 percent of India’s GDP. It is not surprising then that India is ranked seventh on the Global Climate Risk Index. Its long coastline, a high share of fossil fuels in the energy system, a fragile ecosystem, and the high dependence of rural livelihoods on agriculture makes this one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. India faces an urgent need of adapting to the climate variability risks.

With the Green Revolution, India has achieved food security, largely due to rice and wheat production. However, the long-term impact of using high-input greenhouse gas-intensive fertilisers and pesticides are now visible. Indian agriculture is broken: overuse of pesticides and fertilisers have devastated soil and water resources, increasing farmer debt to unbearable proportions. There is mounting evidence to show that the nutritional value of food is suffering in the process—an ecological and health catastrophe the country can ill afford. Add to this the contributions of this kind of agriculture to climate change because of GHG emissions and ill-adapted agroecosystems that are in constant need of irrigation and inputs, and we have the clinching arguments for change. From producers, especially smallholder farmers, through to consumers—Indian agriculture is no longer fit for purpose.

Building on our catalytic potential

But it is not all doom and gloom. India has a background of strong and active engagement by the government to provide ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy measures in supporting ideas with system-scale potential. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme launched in May 2016 to enable poor and rural households shift to cleaner cooking fuels has now benefitted more than 80 million households. Another 10 million beneficiaries are added to the scheme under the 2021 Union Budget. The world now looks up to India’s proven leadership in catalysing innovative approaches in shifting to low-emission growth pathways by executing large-scale policies and initiatives that can deliver the most benefits in terms of livelihoods, climate, nature and affordable energy access.  

India’s National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), focusing on soil and water conservation, water use efficiency, soil health management, and rain-fed area development, promotes sustainable and nature-based solutions through a series of adaptation measures. In 2015, the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) was launched under NMSA to ensure long-term soil fertility, resource conservation, production without agrochemicals, and most importantly, empowering farmers through institutional developments. Beyond NMSA, two other schemes, the National Innovations on Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA), enhance the resilience of Indian agriculture to climate change and climate vulnerabilities through strategic research and technology demonstration, and the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY) promotes the adoption of precision farming techniques such as micro-irrigation.

To achieve India’s adaptation and mitigation goals, it is imperative to focus on a cluster of social and environmental transitions to develop ‘proof points’ within India, which can further serve as important global learnings. 

Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh hardly saw any rainfall last year and has had severe drought for several years now. In a parched land, pre-monsoon dry sowing under PMDS has created a green oasis.
Image: Rythu Sadhikara Samstha

Building back better and greener

In the face of increasing extreme climate events—acute and frequent droughts, floods—examples of resilience from regenerative agriculture and nature-based solutions are emerging from the ground. Such solutions offer a unique approach to apply the ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems. One such solution—pre-monsoon dry sowing (PMDS) is being considered a breakthrough to restore the soil biodiversity, enhance crop production, and improve farmers’ income with significantly less input requirements. In 2020, more than 111,706 farmers have adopted the technique on 87,578 acres in the drought-prone regions of Andhra Pradesh.

Agroecological approaches, working with instead of against nature, have been shown to be more resilient, cost-efficient and effective, and above all, more sustainable. They offer the opportunity for a new agricultural revolution by harnessing the power of nature and the power of modern, integrative systems-science. This is the new horizon towards which Indian agriculture must drive and, indeed, is already moving. However, this revolution is being constrained by a lack of adequately trained and capable professionals and adequately enabled innovative practitioners. Current universities and training institutions churn out ‘input first’ graduates, rather than ‘nature first’ as is required. While now millions of farmers are practising one form of natural farming or the other, the challenge is to properly frame, explain and advocate for their innovations, and they are easily dismissed as being idiosyncratic or heretics. Institutions that research restorative and regenerative agriculture to harness life form and species diversity within complex, adaptive agricultural systems to meet human and ecosystem service needs—based on evidence from research and lived experiences—are needed more than ever before.

India could become the hub of entrepreneurial excellence in sustainable agriculture, much in the way Silicon Valley is driving the fourth industrial revolution. It would allow for broad streams of structured knowledge acquisition and sharing—more formally as research; more experientially, through farmer and user knowledge, seeking opportunities and solutions that serve multiple sustainability goals simultaneously to retool and reimagine agriculture with principles of agro-ecology, natural farming and agroforestry.

Private finance for the public good

Mobilising capital is crucial for India to attain its UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] Nationally Determined Contributions targets. As per the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, India will require $2.5 trillion in investments over 2016-30. An ongoing study by Climate Policy Institute finds that India could only mobilise approximately $18 billion in climate investments in 2018 compared to the annual requirement of nearly $160 billion.

Climate finance is a powerful tool to increase green investment, and more broadly, is an area in which some of the most innovative and potentially transformative solutions for broader sustainability issues are emerging. To build and strengthen the momentum, coordinated action needs to be taken by governments and the financial sector, with development partners and research institutions playing an important facilitating role.  

From India’s perspective, there is an urgent need to focus and align incentives towards resource conservation, such as total farm productivity and enhanced ecosystem services. The urgency of protecting India’s landscapes is underlined from an economic, environmental and social perspective, and investing in their protection is not a cautious or benevolent choice but one that makes economic sense, exemplifying the search to create genuine rather than false value, and to pursue innovative ways to finance India’s sustainable development.  

Last year, India spent $17 billion towards agricultural subsidies in fertilisers, farm credits, crop insurance, and minimum support prices. The state governments granted another $16 billion in subsidies towards electricity power, irrigation, and crop insurances. The fertiliser subsidy alone costs the exchequer more than $10 billion every year, and this week, a further 140 percent hike was announced, pushing the overall fertiliser subsidy to more than $13 billion a year. Accounting for cost inflation, total subsidies are likely to reach $45-50 billion in perpetuity by 2030. This is a lot of money. Repurposing this subsidy to support India’s 120 million smallholder farmers transition to regenerative agriculture can help generate system-scale impact by 2030 in a cost-neutral manner. The solid platform of performance at scale will offer tremendous confidence and opportunity for private investors, domestic financial institutions, and pension and insurance funds to invest in projects with immense impact on public health, biodiversity, resilient landscapes, sustainable livelihoods, micro and macro climate, under what can be the largest climate adaptation initiative by any country in the history of the planet.

There is now a need to bring together global and national thought leaders from the public, private and civil society sectors to build consensus around how low-carbon transition pathways can support India in simultaneously achieving energy efficiency, emissions reductions, climate adaptation and the well-being of people living on the margins of society. Furthermore, considering India’s net-zero future’s transformational social, environmental and economic impacts, there is a need to leverage innovative finance models to support equitable and gender-sensitive climate transitions across different agro-climatic zones.

Financing sustainable development in India means investing in the future. It requires the government to foster an enabling business environment, in which investments that enable a green economy transition are competitive compared to conventional ones. It requires corporations to identify and commit to ‘out of the box’ business models and strategies and to work with government stakeholders to ensure alignment in needs and priorities. It requires collaboration and cutting-edge research to find solutions that are as unique as India’s challenges.

A landscape of opportunities

The year 2021 will see several global processes, including the October UN Convention on Biodiversity Conference of Parties (CoP) in Kunming, China, and the November UNFCCC CoP in Glasgow, UK. India is uniquely placed to considerably shape and push the global shift towards a green economy. At the same time, the protection of its environment, particularly its ecosystems—vital for the global ecological balance—requires serious investment and support to achieve climate change adaptation on a global scale.  

American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler famously said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” We must, hence, not only defeat the virus but also heed its call for action. India is at a crossroads, whereby, the considerable resources that it has at its disposal could be put to use either as a means of accelerating movement along traditional economic development pathways or as tools to conceptualise and implement an alternative sustainable development paradigm. The choice in 2021 could not be clearer.

By Satya Tripathi

This article was originally shared by Forbes India.