Much to the chagrin of the developed world, India has been a tough, unrelenting negotiator at the climate negotiations.

In the 2021 Conference of Parties at Glasgow (COP26), India dug its heels in and got the wording of the text on coal changed from “phase out” to “phase down”.

This nuanced semantic shift may not seem a big change, but those at the negotiations read a lot of meaning in it and the Western media roundly criticised India for “watering down” the agreement on coal.

Similarly, India kept away from the UK-led agreement on deforestation and refused to sign the ‘Global Methane Pledge’, a proposal of the US and the EU to target a 30 per cent reduction in global methane emissions by 2030 over 2020 emission levels.

Strong stance

So is India a drag on global climate action? Not so, says the government of India. There are reasons behind each stance.

A few days back, the government gave a detailed explanation to the Parliament why it refused to sign the methane pledge. It said that fundamentally methane emissions are ‘survival’ emissions and not ‘luxury’ emissions, as in the case of the West.

The two predominant sources of methane emissions in India are ‘enteric fermentation’ (methane from the intestines of animals) and paddy cultivation (from standing water). These emissions result from 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 agriculture. 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. The government also pointed out that 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 100-1,000 years.

“This pledge shifts the CO2 reduction burden to methane reduction, which has a lifetime of just 12 years,” the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, said in reply to a Parliament question.

Cattle factor

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

Finally, the government has cited a technicality for its refusal to sign the pledge. It noted that while India is a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement, the Methane Pledge is outside the ambit of the UNFCCC and its Paris Agreement.

ICAR project

The government has also stressed that it is not as though India doesn’t care about methane emissions. It pointed to the National Innovations in Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) project of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) which has developed several technologies with the potential to mitigate methane emissions.

For instance, the ‘System for Rice Intensification’ has the potential to enhance rice yield from 36-49 per cent with about 22-35 per cent less water than conventional transplanted rice. Another technology, ‘Direct Seeded Rice’ 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. And in the Crop Diversification Programme, Methane emissions are avoided due to the diversion of paddy to alternate crops like pulses, oilseeds, maize, cotton, and agro-forestry.