IPCC author Aditi Mukherji on energy transition in agriculture and water security

By Sahana GhoshonMar. 27, 2023in Energy
Aditi Mukherji interacting with farmers during her visit in northern Bangladesh. Photo by IWMI.
  • ‘Just’ energy transitions in agriculture are vital to address water insecurity and the carbon footprint of agriculture in India, says IPCC scientist and water expert Aditi Mukherji.
  • Climate-driven food and water insecurity is expected to increase with increased warming, reiterates the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
  • In an interview with Mongabay-India, Mukherji discusses the low emission pathways in the water-energy-food nexus, the importance of matching the right crops to the right regions and the need for context-specific understanding of groundwater use.

Climate-driven food and water insecurity is expected to increase with increased warming, reiterates the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Water scientist Aditi Mukherji and one of the report authors, in conversation with Mongabay-India, states that ‘just’ energy transitions in agriculture are vital in speeding up climate action to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Highlighting an ‘implementation gap’ in adaptation and mitigation actions, the IPCC 6th Assessment Cycle Synthesis Report (AR6), that concludes the update of the state of knowledge on climate science and the end of the IPCC AR6 cycle, underlines that climate-resilient development action is “more urgent than previously assessed” in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5).

Climate-resilient development integrates adaptation and greenhouse gas mitigation to advance sustainable development for all, it says.

“It’s not as if we have to compromise on our development needs. We have to consciously follow a low emissions pathway. And for that, there needs to be technological support, there needs to be financing. So, we are talking in terms of a just energy transition,” Mukherji, Director, Climate Change Impact Platform, CGIAR and a Synthesis Report author explains.

Food and water insecurity is expected to increase due to climate-driven changes, says the recent IPCC report. Photo by India Water Portal/Flickr.

Energy transition in the context of agriculture

Mukherji opines that we need to talk more about just energy transition in the context of agriculture. “Right now we are talking about energy transition only in the context of mining,” she adds.

For monsoon-dependent India, just energy transitions in agriculture and lowering agriculture’s carbon footprint link up to agro-ecological suitability — growing crops where it’s suitable, and shifting to clean energy for irrigation.

The AR6 makes it clear that every additional fraction of warming will lead to intensification of the global water cycle and larger extremes – likely intensifying water-related risks that will impact food security.

To enable just energy transition in agriculture, India needs to grow climate-resilient crops and move to clean energy in irrigation.  Photo by Achuthan K V/Wikimedia Commons.

“We also know that we are not managing our water very well. We are very much focused on supply side interventions such as interlinking of rivers; a lot of supply driven and infrastructure-driven interventions but we are not talking enough about the demand side management. For India, the demand side management of water relates to growing appropriate crops in appropriate places given that agriculture is a major user of water–which means we do not grow water-intensive crops in dry areas.”

“And when we grow appropriate crops and we need irrigation, there is a very good case for moving to clean energy, we can easily shift to solar-powered sources for our irrigation needs,” Mukherji adds.

Prioritising justice

Aditi Mukherji’s research has shown that it is mainly the smallholder farmers who are bearing the main cost of solar-powered irrigation. “So, they are not responsible for a large part of the GHG emission and they should not be the ones bearing the cost of this just transition either,” Mukherji says echoing the Synthesis Report’s message on climate-resilient development that prioritises risk reduction, equity and justice.

For climate action, correction of policies and institutions will go a long way.

In a 2006 paper, Mukherji described, using contrasting case studies of the water-abundant state of West Bengal and the water-scarce Gujarat, that groundwater-related policies in India “have very little to do with the scarcity, depletion or quality of groundwater” and “more to do with rural politics manifested, among other things, in terms of the presence or absence of farmer lobbies.”

“There is also the food affordability factor–the need to keep the food prices low. If you have to keep the food prices low, you have to keep the cost of cultivation low so when you want to keep the cost of cultivation low, then you have to provide subsidies to the input subsidy, that’s fertiliser or electricity.”

“With the advent of the Green Revolution, historical Green Revolution technologies were mostly propagated in northwest India which are naturally water-scarce regions so that has led to a kind of imbalance (Green Revolution further worsened the water scarcity). And farmers in places which enjoyed the Green Revolution at the very beginning also became more wealthy or better off and in the process, they also developed strong lobbies. So, obviously it becomes harder now to take away some of those important messages that they are getting,” she says.

Managing water

Expanding on the nuances of water management and misperceptions, she says context specificity is also vital.

“For example, water-saving technologies may not necessarily save water in absolute terms. It may save water in relative terms, but what do we do with the saved water is the important part– does it remain in the aquifer or is the same water also extracted and put in another part of the land? In our research on eastern India and Bangladesh we have shown that it is not always the case that irrigation everywhere will lead to negative impacts on groundwater. If you have high recharge, and if you have a certain kind of aquifer, even continuous irrigation will not necessarily lead to lowering of water.”

Sugarcane, a water-intensive crop is grown in some of the drought-prone regions of Maharashtra. To address the demand side management issues related to water, India must grow the right crops in the right regions, says water expert Aditi Mukherji. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

In South Asia, especially through her work in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, Mukherji remarks that these countries in the region are similar in lacking groundwater governance.

“No governance happens… that’s the part that’s left to the farmers, which is not such a bad thing. Whatever governance happens is indirect governance through electricity tariffs. India, of course, because it’s a larger country has a larger variation in how some places have free electricity versus metered tariff so that affects water use;  in other places there is a lot of groundwater dependence and diesel dependence,” she highlights.

The need for a better land-use plan

As far as the implications of glacier melt on water security in India are concerned, Mukherji says there are three ways to look at it: impacts on regions directly depending on glacial melt, downstream impacts and localised disasters.

At the heart of the problem, in addition to climate change, is infrastructure development without considering the ecology of the region, which puts communities at risk in the Indian Himalayan region. “So, that’s where I think the policies that can be relevant, you know, how to decide our hydropower; should we be making as much hydropower as we have when we know that those hydropower (sites) are at risk? With springs, one of the things that we do is build a road and, in the process, we cut out the spring recharge area, which may be on the top of a hill.

“With the spring discharge area, which may be towards the bottom and when you cut it off, then the springs automatically dry. I think there is a need for a lot more caution and land-use plan,” she concludes.

First published by Mongabay on 22 March 2023.

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