Crop residue burning in Indian Punjab emits particulate matter with detrimental impacts on health, climate and that threaten agricultural production. Though legal and technological barriers to residue burning exist – and alternatives considered more profitable to farmers – residue burning continues.

This article reviews black carbon emissions from residue burning in Punjab, and analyses social-ecological processes driving residue burning, and rice and wheat value-chains.

The authors aim to a) understand system feedbacks driving agricultural practices in Punjab, b) identify systemic effects of alternatives to residue burning and c) identify companies and financial actors investing in agricultural production in Punjab.

The study finds feedbacks locking the system into crop residue burning. The Government of India has greatest financial leverage and risk in the current system. Corporate stakeholders have little financial incentive to enact change, but sufficient stakes in the value chains to influence change.

Agricultural policy changes are necessary to reduce harmful impacts of current practices, but insufficient to bringing about sustainability. Transformative changes will require crop diversification, circular business models and green financing. Intermediating financial institutions setting sustainability conditions on loans could leverage these changes. Sustainability requires a systems perspective, to reconnect production with demand and with supporting environmental conditions.