Category Archives: India

'Feeding 9 billion' requires facing up to climate change

This post was co-authored by Kritee, Senior Scientist, International Climate; Richie Ahuja, Regional Director, Asia; and Tal Lee Anderman, Tom Graff Fellow – India Low-Carbon Rural Development

National Geographic's May cover story, “Feeding 9 billion,” offers valuable insights into how to feed a growing global population while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts. But it omits some key connections with a critical issue: climate change.

Corn withered by drought in America. (Photo credit: Ben Fertig, IAN, UMCES)

Drought in the U.S. causes withering of corn. (Photo credit: Ben Fertig, IAN, UMCES)

As the Food and Agriculture Organization recently documented in great detail, climate change is likely to fundamentally alter the structure of food systems around the globe. With about 43% of the world’s population employed in agriculture, it’s vital that farmers have the knowledge and tools they need both to adapt to climate change and to help mitigate it.

Author Jonathan Foley, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, lays out several steps for “Feeding 9 billion.” Though he starts by acknowledging that agriculture emits “more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined,” he doesn’t explicitly mention how his plan relates to a changing climate.

The first of his steps – halting conversion of additional forests and grasslands to agriculture – is crucial to stopping climate change, given the vast quantities of greenhouse gases released in these conversions. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on mitigation noted, protecting forests and increasing carbon content of the soils can decrease global emissions by as much as 13 gigatons CO2eq/year by 2030 – more than a quarter of current annual global emissions.

Foley also highlights the need to reduce meat consumption, because only a very limited portion of calories consumed by animals yield edible food for humans, and to reduce food waste. According to the IPCC, these consumer-level steps have the potential to decease agricultural emissions by 60% below the current trajectory. While Foley didn’t acknowledge these mitigation potentials, we agree that these are important steps to feeding the world’s population and protecting our environment.

But it’s his steps calling for improving productivity – both by growing more food on existing farms, and by using fertilizer, water and energy more efficiently – where the interactions with climate are more complex and need special attention.

Climate adaptation and resilience in agriculture

Foley rightly points out that to feed the world’s future population, more food needs to grow on existing farms. However, he doesn’t note that some of the effects of climate change – droughts, floods and heat waves in many parts of the world – are already reducing crop yields, and these effects and their consequences are expected to worsen.

The IPCC’s recently published 5th Assessment Report on adaptation concludes that:

  • Climate change is already negatively affecting yields of crops and abundance of fish, and shifting the regions where crops grow and fish live
  • Future changes in climate will increase competitiveness of weeds, making it difficult and more expensive to control them
  • By 2050, changes in temperature and precipitation alone will raise global food prices by as much as 84% above food prices projected without these two climatic factors
  • Major grains like wheat, corn, and rice could see as much as a 40% decrease in yield from a 20C increase in local temperatures. That’s because of the changing rainfall frequency and intensity, unpredictability and irregularity of growing seasons, and higher ozone levels that often accompany high CO­2 levels

To deal with these consequences and ensure food security and livelihoods, adaptation to climate change is essential. Indeed, adopting carefully chosen adaptation and resilience measures could improve crop yields as much as 15-20%. The IPCC recommendations include:

  • Altering planting/harvesting dates to match the shifting growing seasons
  • Using seed varieties that might be more tolerant of changing climatic patterns
  • Better managing water and fertilizer use
A farmer training session, led by EDF’s partner NGO in India (Photo credit: Accion Fraterna)

A farmer training session, led by EDF’s partner NGO in India (Photo credit: Accion Fraterna)

Achieving high yields requires enabling farmers all over the world to adapt, build and restore the resilience of agricultural ecosystems in the face of continued climate change. Given that many farmers in developed countries have already reached what are currently maximum possible yields, it’s particularly urgent to work with farmers in the developing world.

A vast majority of these farmers in developing countries own small-scale farms (less than two acres in size) and have limited resources, and as a result are on the frontline of experiencing the unfolding impacts of climate change. These farmers are already growing the majority of the world’s food – more than 90% of the world’s rice, over 65% of its wheat and 55% of its corn. Notably, as opposed to our recommendations for farmers in the developed countries, some of them might need to increase their fertilizer use to achieve better yields as opposed to decreasing it. Feeding a world of 9 billion thus requires facing the disproportionate effect that climate change has on the 2 billion people who depend on small-scale farms for their livelihood.

Barriers to climate adaptation & mitigation in agriculture

The latest IPCC report also noted that the “nature” of the agriculture sector means:

“there are many barriers to implementation of available mitigation options, including accessibility to … financing, … institutional, ecological, technological development, diffusion and transfer barriers.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Many farmers, especially small scale land-owners in developing parts of the world, lack access to reliable scientific information and technology. In some cases, relevant information has not even been generated.

An Indian peanut farm where EDF is monitoring yield and greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo credit: Richie Ahuja)

An Indian peanut farm where EDF is monitoring yield and greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo credit: Richie Ahuja)

For example, small-scale rice farmers in Asia lack access to information enabling them to determine what amounts of water, organic and synthetic fertilizer will optimize yields while also minimizing release of the greenhouse gases methane (which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released), and nitrous oxide (which is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide). EDF is working with the Fair Climate Network in India and with Can Tho University and other partners in Vietnam to help generate that information and facilitate its use by farmers.

More generally, agricultural institutions at all levels – international, regional, national and local – need to work closely with farmers to learn and promote evidence-based, locally appropriate agricultural adaptation and mitigation technologies and practices. Farmer access to finance can further help improve the adoption rate of these technologies. Larger investments in farming infrastructure and science from government and private sector also need to be channeled to promote food security through low-carbon farming.

Our food system cannot achieve high yields without building and restoring the resilience of agricultural ecosystems, and the system won’t be sustainable if agriculture doesn’t do its part to mitigate climate change.

To feed 9 billion people, we must overcome barriers to reducing climate change’s effects on agriculture, and agriculture’s effect on climate.

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Passengers on India’s largest airline can now invest in low-carbon rural development

Airline travelers in India who fly the country’s largest airline now have an opportunity to support low-carbon rural development programs across the country.

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A new partnership will allow passengers on India's largest airline to invest in offsets that promote low-carbon rural development programs, including low-carbon farming. Credit: Richie Ahuja

The landmark partnership was unveiled this weekend between the Fair Climate Network (FCN), a consortium of Indian groups that is committed to improving health and livelihoods in rural communities, promoting climate resilience and reducing climate pollution, and IndiGo, the country’s largest and fastest growing airline.

The company will use the funds collected through this voluntary program to purchase some of the offsets generated by more than 300,000 Indian families from 36 climate mitigation projects. The projects, being developed and implemented by FCN, help families in rural India gain access to clean, reliable energy and improve farm income while cutting carbon emissions.

These climate adaptation and mitigation activities include innovative and sustainable low-carbon farming techniques and cooking with clean methane power instead of highly polluting traditional wood stoves. The families produce the methane fuel by using biogas digesters to process livestock manure.

Why this is a big deal for India – and Indians

It bears repeating that this is an Indian company buying carbon offsets created in India. We’ve seen other projects in India create offsets that have been purchased by, for example, European organizations. But this project is truly an effort of and for the people of the world’s largest democracy.

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300,000 Indian families participate in programs under the Fair Climate Network, a consortium of Indian groups committed to improving health and livelihoods in rural communities. Credit: Tal Lee Anderman

In offering this program, Indigo is providing its customers an opportunity to support its commitment to shared prosperity and “inclusive” growth – growth that benefits not only rural families that are members of the Fair Climate Network, but also IndiGo’s passengers and all Indians, who will benefit from a healthier environment.

Ram Esteves, the Convener of FCN said addressing rural development is a "high priority," adding:

We need programs that support economic development and deliver social, health and environmental co-benefits, including climate adaptation and mitigation. IndiGo has reposed faith and trust in this understanding of inclusive development where a stable and healthy economy is good for business. This partnership is a strong step in this direction.

IndiGo’s President and Executive Director Aditya Ghosh called the move a “momentous opportunity” for the company, saying:

We strive to make a difference each day and find solutions that help manage our carbon footprint. We are delighted to partner with FCN on this initiative which not only helps us and our passengers achieve just that, but goes far beyond by creating a sustainable positive impact and improving many individuals’ livelihoods.

The company is showing leadership by making this commitment to inclusive growth and offsets, along with other green technology investments, an integral component of its future growth. This partnership can serve as a model for Indian business leaders looking to make a difference in their communities.

Learn more at:

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EDF releases new blog for all our expert voices

EDF’s Climate Talks blog keeps you updated on major international climate issues. We provide thoughtful analysis on international climate negotiations and important climate policy developments around the world, so you can stay informed. However, we know you may have a broad interest in environmental issues.

That’s why we wanted to share with you Environmental Defense Fund’s new flagship blog, EDF Voices. EDF Voices collects stories, ideas and arguments from all of our EDF expert voices in one place. Our thought leaders use this space to weigh in on all sorts of environmental issues, from stories on how farmers in India are adapting to climate change to ideas on how to save the Amazon and its indigenous peoples.

We hope you like what you read on our new EDF Voices blog and become a subscriber.

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Fast-growing India confronts pollution, but optimism not clouded

Foul-smelling air, soot pouring out of smoke stacks, and a blinding fog of pollution.

Thick pollution clouds a street in Delhi (photo courtesy of Flickr user Daveybot)

That’s how EDF columnist Dominique Browning found Delhi when she visited and witnessed for herself the environmental challenges India, ranked the seventh most environmentally hazardous country in the world, is facing.

But with such vivid exposure to pollution in the country, she turned to EDF’s India Program Director, Richie Ahuja, for context.

Richie was born in Agra, home to the Taj Majal, whose pollution-yellowed white marble prompted the Indian Supreme Court in the late 1990s to order 200 nearby factories to stop using coal fuel.

When I told Ahuja that India's pollution was overwhelming, he surprised me by his optimism. "I'm actually feeling very heartened these days," he said. "People used to say, ‘Oh, the pollution, you get used to it.' But now, there are many rumblings in the press, and in city streets, about how serious a problem it is. Even in tiny, isolated villages, people, especially women, are beginning to understand how pollution is connected to their children's health."

Read more from Browning about her visit to India, EDF’s work to address global warming there, and how her trip made tangible the benefits of the U.S. Clean Air Act at home in her post Fast-growing India Confronts Pollution.

You can also read more about EDF's work with partners to help rural households switch from traditional, polluting wood-fired stoves, to cleaner, methane-burning cook stoves in Jennifer Haverkamp's post Picturing low-carbon development: Methane cook stoves in rural India.

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Picturing low-carbon development: Methane cook stoves in rural India

A picture is worth a thousand words – and in this case, what you don’t see is the key story: what isn’t in the picture is black soot coating every wall.

Cook stoves powered by methane generate far less soot than those fueled by wood.

That’s because this resident of rural India is cooking on a two-burner stove powered by methane rather than wood. The methane is produced by a small-scale “digester” located just outside her home. (In the digester, manure from the family’s livestock, stabled nearby, is broken down by bacteria and converted to methane.)

And because she is cooking with methane, not only are her walls cleaner – so are her lungs, and those of her children and husband.

At least as importantly, she no longer needs to spend three to four hours every day – seven days a week, 365 days a year – gathering wood.

That means that instead of her having to collect firewood, build a fire and get it hot enough to cook, she can make the family’s breakfast with the flick of a switch on the methane stove. This time savings in the morning allows her children to get to school as classes begin, rather than several hours into the school day.

Those “extra” hours in her day also allow her to earn outside income, through activities like sewing or making biofertilizers and biopesticides for sale to local farmers – or simply to rest and have a modicum of leisure time. In addition, the digester generates enough fuel that she can cook more than once daily, providing her family with a more varied and nutritious diet.

Improving Indians’ standard of living while not harming environment

The methane digester that powers the stove provides remarkable benefits compared to the traditional wood-fired stove; it:

  1. Digests manure that otherwise would have released methane directly into the atmosphere. Although burning converts methane into carbon dioxide (CO2), methane itself is 23 times more powerful at trapping heat than is CO2.
  2. Allows trees and shrubs to continue storing carbon, rather than being cut down and burned as cooking fuel. Those avoided emissions, once tallied and verified, can be sold as offset credits that pay for the digesters.
  3. Boosts families' standard of living without any increase in carbon emissions.

Villagers show Steve Cochran and me their record books verifying each stoves' methane consumption. The villagers were extraordinarily hospitable, welcoming us with garlands of fresh flowers.

These photos were taken on a recent trip to India with my colleagues Richie Ahuja, Director of EDF’s India Program, and Steve Cochran, our Vice President for Climate and Air.

Richie spends a significant portion of his time in India, working closely with the five innovative nonprofits with whom we are partnering on projects in rural communities. (See Richie’s blog post from International Women’s Day about how EDF is using film to teach rural women about climate change.)  For Steve and me, though, this was the first time we’d seen any of the projects in action.

The methane digesters initiative is a project of the Agricultural Development and Training Service (ADATS), a comprehensive nonprofit rural development organization that since 1977 has worked on sustainable agriculture as well as adult literacy, children’s education, community health and related issues in southern India. Our other partner groups are working on a variety of additional rural technologies, including solar lanterns, more-efficient wood-burning stoves, and low-carbon farming.

EDF is exploring how carbon markets can help provide funding for these locally based initiatives that help significantly improve living standards for the rural poor.

With more than half of India’s nearly 1.2 billion residents having annual incomes under $500, economic development is essential. It’s starting to occur, and with astonishing speed – indeed, India is projected to be the globe’s third-biggest economy by 2035.

For too long, it’s been assumed that development will lead inexorably to massively greater carbon emissions. Our work in India seeks to help create an alternate path – one consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change even as the world’s most populous democracy continues its vital task of lifting its poorest citizens out of poverty.

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On International Women’s Day, a look at rural women in India fighting climate change

With 400 million people living below the poverty line, and an agriculture sector that is heavily dependent on the Monsoon, India is on the frontlines of climate change.  But with such a rapidly developing country and signs of climate change already manifesting, how can both development and climate change be addressed?

The world’s largest democracy will play a crucially important role in answering this question,  and we will learn a lot from the process. This is why Environmental Defense Fund began engaging on the ground in India nearly two years ago.

EDF produced a Bollywood-style movie to address women's roles in managing climate change in rural India.

Since half of India’s population lives in villages and rural areas, one branch of EDF’s work focuses on sharing information about climate change in rural India.  And with a law requiring at least one-third of Indian representatives be women, locally elected women leaders are at the center of our outreach.

It can be challenging to explain how global warming is affecting the women’s lives, so EDF had to think creatively about how to contextualize the risks from climate change, like poverty, risk of hunger, and water security from events like changes in rainfall and rising temperatures.

As a first step, we produced a film starring an Indian soap-opera actor with our partner organization in India, The Hunger Project, which seeks sustainable solutions to world hunger and helps to empower women in rural communities.

The film “Aarohan”, which in Hindi means “A New Beginning”, is designed to prompt the kind of discussion that ultimately may lead to active engagement from women in working to alleviate rural poverty and adapt to climate change.  It’s already been shown in more than 400 villages in three separate states at climate “workshops”, where the women leaders watch the film and share stories about the impact of climate change in their communities.

What follows is a blog piece written by Caroline Howe, a young entrepreneur deeply committed to addressing the issue of energy poverty in India. Caroline was kind enough to be present as an observer during one of the meetings in the Himalayan state of Uttaranchal, which hosted 100 community leaders from 30 villages.  Through the post below, she shares her experience.

Sustainable development in India: reflections from a young entrepreneur

In Delhi, it’s easy to lose hope in the fight for environmental protection and climate mitigation – a thousand new cars every day; thousands of tons of garbage that make their way to the landfills coming from millions of homes, industries, and street sides; constant new construction of flyovers and widening of roads; and the sensation that it is too big for any individual, even any well-intentioned local politician to make a difference.

An overnight train ride away from Delhi, though, there exists another world. One that is full of enormous challenges in a rapidly changing climate, but also one full of Himalayan hope. Environmental Defense Fund, in partnership with The Hunger Project and local NGOs in Uttarakhand, are giving female political and community leaders the tools they need to be able to engage in the development decisions happening every day.

One cold but warming day in mid-January, I had the honor to join Richie Ahuja to visit a leadership program, bringing together more than 100 of these female leaders from throughout the Kumaon district.

These rural women traveled for hours to a small town in the Himalayas to learn about climate change.

Some of these women (and three generations of their family members) travelled by bus for more than 2 hours to reach this workshop, through winding mountain passes from their villages. Many of these women were Sarpanches (elected heads of villages) or members of their panchayat (an elected board of community representatives), while others were community leaders of other kinds, working with Self-Help Groups in their village.

While we waited for the last of the buses to arrive, several women led the group in a song that many of them learned by listening to the first group singing. Describing the interconnectedness between people and the environment, they spoke about how you can’t change one thing without changing the world around it. They sang other songs about the need for action, the need to fight to protect their communities, nature, and the beauty of the Himalayan mountainsides.

The majority of these community members had already seen EDF’s powerful climate film, a drama which unfolds along with the stories of community members in an area with serious environmental challenges directly impacting the lives of the main characters.   (Film is a wildly popular medium in India; India’s own Bollywood now releases in excess of 1000 films a year.)

Conveying as impactful a message as An Inconvenient Truth, but in a format that is easily digestible and appealing to its target audience, the film obviously had sparked dialogue and action in these women. The Hunger Project had conducted surveys of the women who saw the film to discuss the impacts of climate change in their own communities. After a few more songs, the training program began with a review of the survey’s results, while the women present shared their specific stories of impacts in their areas.

Shared experiences from climate change challenges

People shared a common sense of the changing water availability – the lack of snow in Nainital for the past 10 years after centuries of snowy winters, increase in cloudbursts and intense rainstorms, springs running dry – and common impacts from these changes.

One woman observed:

We used to find water nearby; now we walk for 2 hours to find water, and the children do this before they can go to school. The further they walk, the less school they attend.

Women described the effects of climate change they were already seeing in their villages.

Another woman described the impact on the soil: with less water, and less rain, she said, “The soil is getting loose.”

Soil erosion came up as a common theme because of deforestation as well. One woman said

This area used to be all forests, you could look over this valley and see only trees. Now you can see, we’ve cut down the jungle to build these villages and these cottages.

Some women didn’t know who was cutting their forests, but everyone knew it was happening – the best and biggest trees were disappearing.

Another woman described,

Without these big trees, and without the rains there are bigger and bigger forest fires.

Disappearing forests made medicinal herbs hard to find and harder to find fodder for cattle, as well.

It wasn’t just changes in forests and precipitation, though, that these women described. They talked about changes in consumption – with one female leader passionately describing the rise in packaged foods.

We are eating food from plastic instead of food that helps our children and our farms grow.

They talked about the rise in polythene on street corners, on hillsides, all along the village roads.

Other women described the increase in chemical consumption, in farms and in their homes. Instead of using dung or compost, farmers were using chemical fertilizers, and these women recognized that this was an increasing problem for the long-term fertility of the land.

Rural Indian women said they're noticing changes in their environment, like more severe forest fires, less rain and less available drinking water.

But in the midst of these stories of significant changes, women shared the stories of what they had done to change things – what they had done to improve these conditions. One woman spoke of how her community was able to keep people from drawing from their remaining spring so that they could preserve it.

Another woman lay down in the road when someone was trying to take trees out of her village.

You can roll over me, but you won’t take trees out of here.

This delay gave the police enough time to arrive, confirming that these particular men had no permit for logging.

Another community leader had recognized that their village didn’t have a need for a 40 foot wide road as much as they had a need for the trees that would be cut to build it, and so stopped the state government from the road-widening project. They preserved their 10 foot road, and hundreds of trees along the way.

From stories of climate change challenges, hope and inspiration

These stories left me with hope, but the way they responded to questions about why they did this gave me even more inspiration. One participant said:

People from our cities, people from Nainital, have said ‘Why should we do anything? Let Delhi sort it out.’ But if we are the ones feeling the impacts, if we are the ones being impacted, then if we don’t take any action, how can we expect others to?”

Building on this, a woman added:

This is a global problem, but many of these challenges are in our hands, within our control. We can’t wait for others to solve it, we should do what we can with these problems. Polythene here is our problem, the polythene in the city is for them to solve.

One woman concluded by talking about transportation. More cars and more trucks in the mountains, she said, were leading to more pollution and more heat in their area.

I’m not saying don’t drive, but that we need cars that pollute less, and more thoughtful development of our regions’ transportation.

Performances during the workshop allow participants to act out how they plan to combat climate change, along with other environmental challenges they face in their communities.

After this discussion, a group of young people from a local NGO performed a street play set in the future, using the same tools of drama and humor, building intriguing and captivating characters that were being impacted by changes in their communities.

In some ways, this street play brought to life the same dramas and dilemmas facing the characters in EDF’s film, demonstrating again the power of engaging people on an emotional level before asking them to engage intellectually or physically in combating these challenges in their communities.

It was wonderful watching women laugh as young men played characters of grandmothers and as their friends and neighbours made both comic and real the challenges they had been speaking about.

It was even more wonderful to watching the understanding wash over the crowd as these characters faced the extreme challenges that may well face these communities in 10 or 20 years, certainly within the lifetimes of the women present, and to watch the discussions that were generated afterwards.

The group concluded on a powerful, inspiring, empowered note, recognizing that the challenges they could face could also be solved.

They spoke about solar energy – “You may have to pay upfront, but from then on, it’s absolutely free!”– and water conservation – “There is enough, if we use it well.” More importantly, though, they addressed the mindset change that would have to occur within each one of them, and within their neighbours.

Prompting a round of applause, one gentleman said:

If man can make a ton of metal fly in the sky, then we certainly can solve these problems on the ground.

For these men and women who have seen so much change – technological and environmental – in their lifetimes, they know that they do have the power to make these changes possible.

Before getting back onto the ton of metal taking me back down the mountain, I looked back to these women who were facing so much with so much courage and strength, and were able to do so because they were together. They were able to share their stories and learn from each other, as human beings, with emotions and needs, with courage and confidence.

I took some of this with me and re-entered Delhi with a heart and head full of Himalayan hope.

Follow EDF's India Program Manager on Twitter @richieahuja.

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