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Can carbon-positive villages pave the way for climate resilience?

A study on carbon positive villages in India bats for building the capacities of communities and establishing institutions in villages to scale up and maintain conservation practices and community assets that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions

— According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use sector offers considerable opportunities to reduce GHG emissions through a concerted, rapid, and sustained effort by all stakeholders.

— Monitoring and evaluation frameworks along with recording baseline data and transformations in carbon dynamics are essential to map the progress of such climate mitigation efforts.

Sahana Ghosh

Every time Mahesh, a farmer in Karnataka, interacts with others over a suite of water and soil conservation technologies that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and enhance agricultural yields, the most common question he fields is “How do you get value for agricultural produce?”

Mahesh NM is one of the 100 farmers at Karnataka’s Durgada Nagenahalli, who experimented with tree-based farming and dryland horticulture, developing farm ponds, and practicing rainwater harvesting, for a decade, as part of an Indian government project on agricultural innovations for climate resilience.

Improved water availability, soil fertility and microclimate through science-backed interventions and planning have enabled the farmers in the drought-affected region to reap benefits of the farm produce such as gooseberry, cashew, tamarind and mango, by setting up a farmers’ producer company, says Mahesh.

Durgada Nagenahalli is also one of the nine hamlets in India identified in a review study as a carbon positive village – where a mix of soil and water conservation technologies that absorb and minimise greenhouse gas emissions has helped the village offset more carbon than released, over a long period of time. Experts say while concepts of carbon-neutrality and carbon positivity are the way forward in climate action, constraints associated with small-land holdings, gradual environmental and financial benefits instead of fast gains and monitoring of land carbon stocks need to be dealt with.

The findings come even as the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body, underscores that the Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) sector which contributed to 13-21% of total greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2019, offers considerable opportunities to reduce GHG emissions by a “concerted, rapid, and sustained effort by all stakeholders, from policy-makers and investors to landowners and managers.”

According to the IPCC, AFOLU can provide 20% to 30% of the global mitigation needed for a 1.5 or 2°C pathway by 2050, though it cannot be a substitute for delayed action in reducing emissions in other sectors. But these mitigation measures need to be backed by robust measurement, reporting and verification processes to transparently monitor the changes in land carbon stocks and this can help misleading assumptions or claims on mitigation, the panel said.

The villages reviewed by scientists at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutes, for their climate mitigation potential spanned Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Bihar. They were adopted under ICAR’s National Innovations in Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) megaproject.

Practices such as terracing and bund formation in hill ecosystems, farm pond technologies for water storage and recycling, desilting of water tanks to return the organic matter and plant nutrient-rich silt back to the fields, restoring jhum lands in hill ecosystems, and a suite of agroforestry systems are some of the key measures that can develop carbon positive villages.

Indu Murthy, an expert on land-based climate mitigation, who was not involved in the review, tagged the concept of carbon positive villages as the “way forward.”

“We’ve been talking about net-zero climate mitigation at a national level and you can work with the big sectors such as transport and energy sector at the national level. But then mitigation is also about behavioural change which is extremely important. And that could happen only when you start working bottom-up, which is, working with the villages. Now, if that change has to happen, looking at carbon neutrality or carbon positivity at the local level makes a lot of sense,” Murthy, Sector Head, Climate, Environment and Sustainability, at CSTEP, told Mongabay-India.

Other examples of carbon positivity or neutrality include Meenangadi gram panchayat in Kerala (which, through mitigation and adaptation activities at the local level, aims to balance the greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration within a quick time span and become carbon neutral) and a pilot at Phayeng in Manipur to turn the village into a carbon positive model.

Arun Jyoti Nath, associate professor of Ecology and Environmental Science, Assam University, Silchar, who has studied the above-ground biomass and carbon stock at Phayeng’s sacred grove, drew attention to the role of forest-based and indigenous communities in India that contribute to carbon positivity.

“By default, many villages in northeast India are carbon positive because they are centred around sacred forests and the practices of indigenous communities that enhance carbon sinks and prevent emissions from land degradation. The absence of industries in these areas also means emissions are reduced,” explained Nath.

Using a climate lens to look at development at the local level

Researchers assessing the carbon positivity of villages under the NICRA project, looked at signals that made the villages more climate-resilient by sequestering more carbon and fortifying the soil. “Apart from carbon sequestration we looked at the improvement in agricultural yield component and drought resilience due to better soil over a period of time,” study co-author P.C. Abhilash at BHU’s Institute of Environment and  Sustainable Development, told Mongabay-India.

The extent of minimisation of soil loss due to soil conservation technologies ranges from 0.10 to 21.65 Megagram per hectare per year, while the minimised carbon emissions range from 0.73 to 158.77 kg/hr/ yr. Adoption of conservation technologies resulted in a net carbon balance of 0.05–1.23 COMg/ha/yr in nine villages in India, indicating a net positive carbon balance due to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration, the paper says.

Abhilash and co-authors write in the paper that “action plans for making villages carbon positive should identify technologies which can enhance productivity, contribute to climate resilience and also mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for each of the prevalent cropping and farming systems.”

“The feature that links these villages is the active involvement of progressive or transformative farmers who wanted to experiment and improve water and land conservation practices and showed how these systems can be replicated in similar agro-ecological contexts. They are the real scientists,” Abhilash adds.

At Durgada Nagenahalli, with the help of Krishi Vigyan Kendra and information supplied by ICAR- National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use planning on soil organic carbon levels and other parameters, farmers grew as many as 22 species of plants including Melia dubia, teak and silver oak and dryland horticulture crops of tamarind, mango, gooseberry, cashew and jamun.

“In order to ensure better survival rate, the planting was done on the bunds after digging the trenches in the entire area. Nearly 80% of the area was brought under the tree cover by involving 100 farmers,” said Ramesh. P.R, a soil science expert at ICAR-Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Hirehalli.

“At the start of the project, soil was completely eroded and soil organic carbon was 0.2 to 0.3 %. In the course of time, it has gone up to 0.56%,” said Ramesh.

Higher levels of soil organic matter (soil carbon) helps the soil to absorb and retain more water for longer periods of time which could mitigate crop losses from drought. “Soil organic matter builds up the microbial colonies that benefit the overall soil system for crop growth,” said Abhilash.

Ramesh explains that the decision to go for horticulture crops such as gooseberry and the subsequent value addition to satisfying consumer demands was based on the needs articulated by the village climate risk management committee at D. Nagenahalli.

Mahesh tells Mongabay-India that initially many in the community were hesitant to run with the interventions but over time as results started showing, they came forward. “Resource conservation strategies such as organic farming may not bear promising results in the first year. They have long gestation periods before impacts show and farmers may be reluctant to come forward immediately. And farmers with small landholdings can’t go for such experimentation,” added Abhilash.

Murthy adds that once the project period ends, ideally the community should be enabled to take it forward. “With a project, you have brought a change in thinking; you have brought in all the kinds of required activity and sensitivity to the kinds of things that need to be done. The ideal situation is for communities to take it forward,” she said.

“It might be good to put in place monitoring mechanisms so you can compare with the base dataset how things are working out. If you want to look at the incremental change or the transformations that happen, a monitoring and evaluation framework becomes extremely important,” she added.

Echoing Murthy on monitoring and evaluation frameworks, Arun Jyothi Nath observes that goals of projects to make a community or village carbon positive or neutral should also include social benefits that cannot be quantified. “For example, maintaining community-led forests or structures can add to recreation or the maintenance of a rural way of life and protection of sites of cultural significance,” added Nath.

This article first appeared on Mongabay here