Addressing the Agriculture, Energy, Water, Climate Change Nexus

12-13 August 2019, Canberra


Dr Ajay Mathur

Director General
The Energy and Resources Institute
and Member of the Indian Prime Minister’s
Council on Climate Change

Is the Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, and a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change. He earlier headed the Indian Bureau of Energy Efficiency and was responsible for mainstreaming energy efficiency through initiatives such as the Star Labeling programme for appliances, the Energy Conservation Building Code, and the Perform, Achieve & Trade programme for energy-intensive industries. He was a leading climate change negotiator and was the Indian spokesperson at the Paris climate negotiations. He served as the interim Director of the Green Climate Fund during its foundational period.

At TERI, he has spearheaded the move to accelerate action towards a low-carbon and cleaner economy through the adoption of renewable energy in the Indian electricity sector, enhancing efficiency in buildings and industry, and promoting environmental quality through recycling of material wastes and biotechnology-based solutions.

He co-chairs the global Energy Transitions Commission, and one of the climate initiatives of the One Planet Summit.

Crops, Drops and Climate Challenge: Configuring the Perfect Storm

Water availability, at the right time and in appropriate quantity is at the heart of agricultural practices worldwide; and the availability of water is largely dependent on the use of energy to pump it.  Energy use also drives many other farm operations – tilling, sowing, harvesting and the manufacture of chemical fertilizers.  We have, over the years, tended to overuse both water and energy in agricultural operations; practices that are now at odds with the challenges due to the emerging changes in hydrology and the increasing global concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

It has been argued that water-use efficiency and energy efficiency in agriculture are self-regulating phenomena, largely driven by water and energy prices.  This is only partially correct now. Climate change requires us to effectively decarbonize our economies by the third quarter of this century.  This implies that agricultural operations will need to become fossil-fuel free in the next two decades.  We believe that this requires three parallel interventions:

  • enhance water-use and energy-use efficiency in agricultural operations;
  • convert agricultural operations to utilize electricity instead of fossil fuels; and
  • decarbonize the electricity supply by converting to renewable sources, instead of fossil fuels, as energy sources for electricity generation.

All the three interventions require policies, incentives, and regulations for their initial acceptance, commercial model development, and large-scale replication.   However, the first two interventions require actions mainly by farmer-entrepreneurs, while the third intervention requires action both by the farmer-entrepreneurs (through generating their own solar electricity) as well as by electricity generation companies. 

What would these interventions look like?  An example that covers all the three interventions is the promotion of energy-efficient solar pumps for irrigation accompanied by micro-irrigation facilities, with the excess electricity being bought by the electricity distribution company. The micro-irrigation facilities and the energy efficient pump reduce the requirement for water pumping, and consequently of the electricity needed to pump it, thus reducing the cost of the expensive solar panels.  At the same time, the purchase of the excess electricity provides a revenue stream for farmer-entrepreneurs, which enables them to invest in the solar panels, energy efficient pump and micro-irrigation facilities, as well as minimize fertilizer and water use.

Another example is the promotion of energy-efficient electric tillers, harvesters and other farm equipment.  These avoid greenhouse gas emissions, at the user level, and provide the potential to contribute to zero-GHG agriculture with the decarbonisation of the electricity grid.

Energy efficient solar pumps with micro-irrigation facilities are already less expensive, on a lifetime cost basis, as compared to flood irrigation by inefficient diesel or electric pumps.  Similarly, electric machinery is cheaper than diesel-run machinery, though the capital cost is higher for electricity-driven machinery, which requires onboard storage of electricity in batteries, such as electric tractors. 

The major challenge that these interventions face are the creation of demand for the zero-GHG energy-efficient options (so that economies of scale can drive down prices) and of the availability of capital (loans) for farmer-entrepreneurs to invest in these options.  These are challenges that have been successfully overcome in the past – in enabling the green revolution, and more recently in building the market demand for energy-efficient refrigerators and air conditioners, buildings, etc.   

Drop for crops are essential; energy efficiency provides us with the entry point to enable a perfect storm for change – which addresses the wellbeing of the farmer-entrepreneurs and local water availability, as well as global climate concerns