In Retrospect

Democratised route to curbing emissions

Instead of falling into the trap of ‘Methane Pledge’, India should facilitate installation of decentralised biogas digesters to ensure that the agriculture sector remains stable in new-fangled ‘methane economy’

Democratised route to curbing emissions

At the 26th Conference of Parties' (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), held during November 2021 in Glasgow, over 100 countries promised to cut their methane emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030. It is believed that methane is a deadly greenhouse gas and the second biggest contributor to global warming, after carbon dioxide. Methane is over 80 times more potent than CO2 when observed over a 20-year period, but stays in the air for a much shorter time — around a decade. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, can remain in the atmosphere for centuries.

Sources of methane

Methane is generated when organic matter decomposes in an environment with little to no oxygen, for example underwater, or in an animal's intestine as food is digested — a process known as enteric fermentation. Plants growing in standing water, like rice, generate a lot of methane, but livestock rearing remains the biggest contributor of methane within the agricultural sector. In India, agriculture is the biggest source of methane emissions, but also one of the hardest to abate.

Methane is 28 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the atmosphere, and is responsible for almost a quarter of global warming. About 50 per cent of methane emissions globally are due to human activities, largely from agriculture, waste and fossil fuel production and consumption. Methane is also released through the exploitation of fossil fuels, during the process of oil, coal and gas exploration, extraction and processing. While the energy sector used to be the main methane emitter until about two decades ago, and is still a major contributor, agriculture is now the biggest source of methane. According to the latest data from the international research initiative, Global Methane Budget, agriculture contributes to 27.3 per cent of total methane emissions, while wetlands are the biggest source of naturally produced methane.

Ten countries produce 57 per cent of global methane emissions. These are China, Russia, India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico and Australia. China, Russia and India have not signed the Methane Pledge.

While the urgency of reducing global emissions of the potent greenhouse gas is ever increasing, Indian scientists caution that drastically cutting methane emissions in the country would involve a radical overhaul of its agricultural system, something that India may not be economically and technically ready for.

Methane pledge or nitrogen pledge?

A significant proportion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions comes from the manufacture of synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilisers consumed in crop production processes.

In 2005, GHG emissions from N fertiliser manufacturing were estimated to be 260.4 Tg CO2-eq, accounting for 4.3 per cent of the total national GHG emissions. Synthetic N fertilisation is considered as one of the most significant factors contributing to anthropogenic N2O emissions from agricultural soils. Farmers compensate for reduced soil fertility by applying excessive quantities of chemical fertilisers, which contribute to climate change through their release globally of 1.2 million tons per year of nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas 260 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Logically, along with the Methane Pledge, an initiative to reduce anthropogenic nitrogen (Nitrogen Pledge) in the agricultural sector should have been taken to combat climate change.

Immediate beneficiaries

The methane pledge is likely to develop a global market for 'methane reduction equipment and products'. Organic farming may get a hit and farmers' reliance on chemical fertiliser would increase due to absence of any nitrogen pledge.

According to a recent study, the European Union will struggle to meet its methane emission targets unless it reduces the number of livestock in the region. This will increase the demand for synthetic meat for human consumption.

Cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. The development has been hailed as a landmark moment across the meat industry. It is reported that the "chicken bites", produced by the US company Eat Just, have passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency and the approval could open the door to a future when all meat is produced without the killing of livestock, the company said.

IAEA has suggested reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture with the help of nuclear techniques. In a series of research projects, coordinated by the IAEA in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the effectiveness of environment-friendly farming methods is verified by stable isotope techniques.

Royal DSM, a global purpose-led science-based company, announced that European Union (EU) member states approved the marketing of the methane-reducing feed additive for dairy cows, Bovaer®, in the EU. After inclusion in the EU registry, expected in the coming weeks, it is the first time a feed additive authorised in the EU for environmental benefits can be marketed. This marks a significant milestone for DSM, paving the way for Bovaer® to revolutionise the dairy market. Bovaer® will contribute to the greening of the EU's agriculture, and to the objectives of the Farm to Fork Strategy. As stated in the European Commission's confirmation of approval, the innovative feed additive is safe for use without impacting the quality of dairy products and is the first of its kind to be available within the EU which can reduce methane emissions.

India's stand on methane pledge

It is reported that India did not sign the COP26 pledge to stop deforestation and cut methane gas emissions by 2030 because of its concerns over the impact on trade, on the country's vast farm sector, and the role of livestock in the rural economy. On the methane issue, India has taken a very clear and bold stand by not bowing before developed countries.

Answering to specific questions — (a) whether the government is aware of the fact that India is the third largest emitter of methane globally; (b) the reasons for not signing up for the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 in Glasgow; (c) the sector-wise breakdown of methane emissions in the country; (d) whether the Government plans to reduce positive methane emissions and if so, the details thereof; and (e) if not, the reasons therefor — the Indian Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, made the following statement in Lok Sabha on December 13, 2021:

✵ Different databases rank countries differently in respect of their methane emissions. As per the Global Methane Initiative (GMI) website, China, Russia and USA are the top three methane emitters. India ranks fourth, and its methane emissions are nearly one-third that of China. As per India's third Biennial Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), methane emissions accounted for 409 million tonnes of CO2 i.e., 14.43 per cent of India's total Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in 2016. The agriculture sector in the year 2016 registered a decrease of 2.25 per cent in GHG emissions since 2014.

✵ India has not signed up for the Global Methane Pledge. The Pledge was proposed by the European Union and the United States of America at the Major Economies Forum (MEF) on Energy and Climate Change on September 17, 2021 targeting a 30 per cent reduction in global methane emissions from 2020 levels by 2030. India is a Party to the UNFCCC and its Paris Agreement and remains steadfast in its commitment in framing and implementing its actions to combat climate change. The Pledge is outside the ambit of the UNFCCC and its Paris Agreement. In exercise of its right of sovereign, national determination of its climate actions, and as per the assessments by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare; the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas; and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Government decided not to sign the "Global Methane Pledge". The salient reasons and related information are as below:

٭ The two predominant sources of methane emissions in India are enteric fermentation and paddy cultivation. These emissions result from the agricultural activities of small, marginal, and medium farmers across India, whose livelihood stands threatened by the aforesaid Pledge. In contrast, agriculture in developed countries is dominated by industrial attributes.

٭ In the context of food security, the methane emissions are 'survival' emissions and not luxury emissions. In addition to impacting farmers' income, this can impact agricultural production, especially that of paddy. India is one of the largest producers and exporters of rice. Therefore, this Pledge also has the potential to affect India's trade and economic prospects.

٭ Agriculture was not included in the emission intensity target as per India's pre-2020 voluntary commitments.

٭ As per the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the predominant gas responsible for climate change is CO2 which has a lifetime of 100-1000 years. This Pledge shifts the CO2 reduction burden to methane reduction, which has a lifetime of just 12 years.

٭ Also, India has the largest cattle population in the world, which is a source of livelihood to a large section of population. The contribution of Indian livestock to the global pool of enteric methane is very low, as Indian livestock utilises large volumes of agricultural by-products and unconventional feed material.

✵ India's methane emissions in 2016 (excluding LULUCF) were 409 million tonne CO2e of which, 73.96 per cent was from Agriculture sector, 14.46 per cent from Waste sector, 10.62 per cent from Energy sector and 0.96 per cent was from Industrial Processes and Product Use sector.

✵ (d) and (e) The Government is taking a number of initiatives to reduce methane emissions such as:

٭ Through initiatives like 'The Gobar (Galvanising Organic Bio-Agro Resources)-Dhan' scheme and New National Biogas and Organic Manure Programme, cattle waste utilisation is being incentivised, in addition to production of clean energy in villages. The Gobar-dhan scheme, inter alia, supports biodegradable waste recovery and conversion of waste into resources and reduction of GHG emissions.

٭ The Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying is implementing the National Livestock Mission, which inter alia, includes Breed Improvement and Balanced Rationing. Feeding livestock with a superior quality balanced ration is helping to reduce methane emissions from the livestock.

٭l System for rice Intensification: The technique has potential to enhance rice yield from 36-49 per cent with about 22-35 per cent less water than conventional transplanted rice.

٭ Direct seeded rice: The system reduces methane emissions as it does not involve raising nurseries, puddling and transplanting. Unlike transplanted paddy cultivation, standing water is not maintained in this system.

٭ Crop Diversification Programme: Methane emissions are avoided due to diversion of paddy to alternate crops like pulses, oilseeds, maize, cotton and agroforestry.

٭ A total of 216 WtE plants, with aggregate capacity of 370.45 MWeq, have been set up in the country to generate power or biogas/bio methane or Bio-CNG from agricultural, urban, industrial and municipal solid wastes.

٭ The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban. The mission, along with promulgation of Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, Construction & Demolition (C&D) Waste Rules, 2016, Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 and various policy interventions by MoHUA, encourages conversion of waste to value added products viz. waste to energy, electricity etc. In 2021, the mission resulted in methane reduction of 231 Gigagram per year.

Most suitable solution

The most suitable option before India is to create small digesters to convert animal dung and other biological wastes to capture methane in a closed chamber and use it as a cooking fuel. It will serve the dual purpose of trapping methane and burning the same as a cheap energy source. The collected organic material feeds into a container buried in the ground (the "digester"), where the anaerobic environment breaks it down, creating methane. The biogas then rises into a storage tank and stays there until it is needed. Digested slurry—the solid byproduct of the decomposed waste—is used as a free, nutrient-rich fertiliser by many poor, rural farmers to help improve crop yields.

In a study (2018), Rajkumar – a Senior Research Fellow at Calcutta University — and this author revealed that for Muzaffarpur (Bihar), total rural biogas production potential ranges from 2,29,729.12M3 to 4,08,407.33M3. This can fulfil 36.33 per cent to 64.58 per cent of total requirements of the estimated demand of LPG. After the total failure of the Ujjwala scheme, bio gas has become the most viable clean energy alternative to the millions of villagers of India where cattle are still plentiful.

Despite the huge potential of biogas digesters in the district of Muzaffarpur, the Bihar government has decided to promote solar energy (one of the most expensive alternative energies based on imported technology) instead of promoting indigenous biogas technology as an alternative green energy enabler. As biogas is a democratic and decentralised technology 'of the people, by the people and for the people', the responsibility of promoting the same may be taken up by various social organisations and used as an effective tool to break the hegemony of large petroleum corporations in food and energy sectors.

Unlike India, the Chinese government has been incentivising farmers to do this for decades, so has the US, albeit less successfully. In the US, nearly half of the methane released from manure comes from pig farms. Compared to China, the US has accorded methane capture a low priority and is way behind in adopting it in agriculture. Only three per cent of US dairy and pig farms operate anaerobic digesters to capture methane. In the US, agricultural universities started conducting research and constructed about 140 farm digesters. Sadly, by the mid-1980s, 85 per cent of the early US digesters were abandoned when fuel prices dropped. Farmers went back to storing and spreading untreated manure that continued to release methane into the atmosphere.

Around the same period, China was facing another type of energy crisis – firewood. In the countryside, peasants gathered wood to fuel their stoves, devastating the nation's forests and creating a health crisis. China is leading the world in using digesters to capture methane from manure, accounting for a third of the overall global digesters. China has also modelled the elements of a successful agricultural methane capture programme for developing and developed countries. The Biogas Institute provides a comprehensive programme of research, technical support, training and demonstration, combined with government subsidies.

Most importantly, China recognised early the multiple benefits of adopting biogas technology. The fuel value may rise and fall with world energy markets, but greenhouse gas reduction, forest protection, and improved indoor air quality and disease control ensure a strong package of environmental and public health benefits.


Though the global Methane Pledge is not mandatory at present, in the future, developed countries may use methane emission as a non-tariff trade barrier as done in case of carbon emission. Imposition of methane tax, especially on organic agricultural products, cannot be ruled out. India should develop a viable plan to tackle the methane issue in the emerging 'methane economy'.

The Government of India wanted to retain centralised control over this highly potential technology by offering subsidies etc., which has de-marketed its potential due to bureaucratic bottlenecks. The viable option to promote this people's technology is by the people themselves. It should be promoted as a 'green fuel' which helps to substantially reduce the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas harmful to the atmosphere.

Views expressed are personal

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