ISFR 2019: Behind the numbers, a clear and present danger

Newsletter - January 8, 2020

Number Games: India’s forest growth reported in the State of Forest Report 2019 is mired in ambiguities that could end up derailing efforts to achieve its NDC | Photo: Mongabay

ISFR 2019: Behind the numbers, a clear and present danger

India’s total forest and tree cover registered a growth of 5,188 sqkm over the past two years. This bit of positive news was the highlight of the India State of Forest Report 2019 (ISFR), released at the end of the year. “India is one of the few countries where forest cover is increasing and now almost 25% of the country is under forest cover,” said environment minister Prakash Javadekar at the report’s launch. He added that India is the only country to record growth in each category of forests assessed.

The story is not one of only growth though. Despite an overall gain of 3,976 sqkm of forests since 2017, 2,145 sqkm of dense forests have turned non-forests in the time. The loss was almost completely compensated by the conversion of 1,858 sqkm of non-forest land into dense forests. Over 8,500 sqkm of dense forests have become non-forests, while close to 5,500 sqkm have gone the other way since 2015. The northeast region, over 65% of which is classified as forests, continued to show a decline in forest cover losing about 740 sqkm in the past two years. A similar decline has been noted recorded forest area (RFA) in tribal districts, which contain nearly 60% of India’s forests.

Nevertheless, the growth of forest and tree cover in the country was welcome news for the government after a year in which deforestation and tree-cutting for development projects featured prominently in news cycles across the country. But as the report gets digested and its contents absorbed, worrying discrepancies that could overshadow any real gains have emerged.

Perhaps the biggest discrepancy lies in the mismatch between India’s total forest cover and its RFA. While the report claims an increase in forest area from 7,08,273 sqkm to 7,12,249 sqkm, only 5,13,436 sqkm of this is RFA, while the rest comes from forests identified outside forest area. While forest area within RFA has decreased over the past two years by about 330 sqkm, forest area outside RFA has increased by about 4,300 sqkm. Of the 7,28,520 sqkm identified as RFA, 2,15,084 sqkm or 30% has no forest on it.

With the ambiguity regarding India’s total forest cover and loss in its RFA, the increase presented in the ISFR 2019 can be boiled down to two major factors – its definition of forests and its methodology. The inference that increases in plantations and agro-forestry outside RFA is offsetting declines in natural forest cover gains traction when considering the operational definition of forests. According to the Forest Survey of India (FSI), any area over 1 hectare (ha) in size with a canopy that covers more than 10% of the geographical area regardless of their legal status or species composition can be considered a forest.

In terms of methodology, too, improved satellite imagery has a scale of 1:50,000  compared to 1:2,50,000 scale data used for ISFR 2017. The 5X improvement in scale has enabled more granular analysis of land cover, covering areas under 0.25 sqkm, which were left out under previous assessments. In effect, this has meant that several patches of non-forest land with significant tree cover and denuded forests that had shrunk to less than 0.25 sqkm in area, which were not captured in previous assessments, have been included in the latest ISFR as a gain in forests. ISFR 2019 has also included tree cover data based on highly contested state-level tree inventories to estimate tree cover data.

A culmination of these factors has resulted in Karnataka (1,025 sqkm), Andhra Pradesh (990 sqkm) and Kerala (823 sqkm) being the top three states in terms of net forest area gain despite severe droughts in the past few years. Comparatively, while Karnataka and Kerala have registered a growth of 84 sqkm and 62 sqkm in RFA, a loss of 273 sqkm was recorded in Andhra Pradesh.

On paper, this statistical jugglery can be passed off as creative accounting, but on the ground these ambiguities could have far-reaching consequences, especially in terms of India’s climate action. The current carbon stock in India’s forests is about 7.12 billion tonnes (26.358 billion tonnes CO2 eq., up from 7.08 billion tonnes (26.196 billion tonnes CO2 eq.) in 2017. While the rise brings some solace, it falls short of achieving India’s NDC in the Paris Agreement to create an “additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent” by 2030. Although India has not specified a baseline year for the calculations, even a relatively relaxed baseline of 2005 would imply a commitment of 33.747-35.6 billion tonnes CO2 eq. by 2030. A more ambitious baseline of 2015 would imply 35.312-37.162 billion tonnes CO2 eq.

At the current rate of increase of 21 million tonnes per year, India’s carbon stock would be 7.35 billion tonnes (27.213 billion tonnes CO2 eq.) by 2030. According to FSI’s business as usual scenario, India’s carbon stock is estimated to be 31.87 billion tonnes CO2 eq. by 2030, still short by at least 2 billion tonnes CO2 eq. The accuracy of these estimates is further brought into doubt by the expanding footprint of plantations and ‘trees outside forests’, already at 9% of India’s total forests.

If afforestation continues to rest on plantations, which offer nowhere near the same ecological services or carbon sequestration potential as natural forests, the NDC will slowly but surely slip out of reach. Although India is currently using these contentious figures to posture as a leader of afforestation and climate action, the danger that such inconsistencies will be used against it in the future and potentially deadlock climate negotiations for years is present and clear.

Climate Science

Uncontrollable blaze! Australia’s bushfires, exacerbated by climate change, have burnt so hot this year that they have created their own thunderstorms and lightning | Photo:

Massive amounts of land, flora & fauna destroyed in deadly, unrelenting Australian bushfires

The New Year began with photographs and videos of blood red skies because of deadly bushfires in southeast Australia flooding news channels and the Internet. Currently, there are 146 fires raging across the state of New South Wales, 65 of which remain uncontained. Nearly 5 million hectares of land has been lost to the fires. The fires, in fact, are so hot that they have created their own thunderstorms and lightning, much like a volcanic eruption or an atomic bomb blast.

What’s most heart breaking, however, is that some reports have suggested that over a half a billion helpless mammals, birds and reptiles have died in the bushfires. Scientists have warned that it is time we take into account the role played by climate change in exacerbating weather events, such as the bushfires, which have been hard to contain because of frequent heatwaves and drought, making Australia a ‘tinderbox’.  

53 killed in Jakarta flash floods; country uses cloud seeding to halt torrential rain

Flash floods caught Indonesia’s Capital, Jakarta, unawares on the first day of the New Year after torrential rain the night before. According to reports, at least 53 people have been killed and 1,75,000 have been evacuated so far.

The country claimed to have carried out cloud seeding to prevent further rainfall. This method, which involves shooting salt flares into rain clouds in an attempt to trigger rainfall and breaking up clouds before they reach the flood-hit spot. At least three rounds of cloud seeding have been conducted with more in the offing as and when required, authorities said.

Delhi breaks its 119-year-record for coldest Dec day as coldwave grips north India

A cold wave gripped western and northern India in the last week of 2019. On December 30, India’s Capital Delhi broke its 119-year-record of the most coldest day in December – a maximum temperature of 9.4°C and a minimum temperature of 2.6°C. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the cold wave killed at least 28 people. While deaths have been reported across north Indian states, there is no official confirmation of the numbers

Scientists have blamed a ‘robust spell’ of Western Disturbances – they are extratropical storms originating in the Mediterranean region that bring sudden winter rain to the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent – for the coldwave. The New Year did, however, bring some relief to the regions as the India Meteorological Department (IMD) predicted warmer days in the coming week.

Study finds climate change markers in daily weather

Can climate change be detected in daily weather? Traditionally, scientists believe weather is what we experience in the short term but climate gives us more of the bigger picture. But a new study believes that climate change markers can be picked up from daily weather records. The study, which was partly an attempt to disprove US President Donald Trump’s tweets about how a cold day in one location disproves global warming, evaluated how daily temperatures and humidity differ in different parts of the world.

According to the study’s co-author Reto Knutti of ETH Zurich, climate change cannot be detected in daily local weather. The global mean temperature on a single day, however, has shifted, he says, making the human fingerprint on climate change more than visible.   

It takes less than 2 weeks for the average Brit to emit as much CO2 as Africans emit in a year: Oxfam

A new study published by Oxfam threw light on the massive disparity between carbon footprints in the developed and developing worlds. According to the study, the average British person would have emitted more CO2 in just the first two weeks of this year than a citizen of any one of seven African countries emits in a year. The study states that by January 12, the average Briton’s emissions will have overtaken the annual per capita emissions of a further six African countries: Madagascar, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Guinea and Burkina Faso. It further reveals that annual emissions of carbon dioxide, per head of population, is 0.09 tonnes in Rwanda, 0.19 in Malawi and 0.25 in Burkina Faso. Further up the scale, it was found that Nigeria emits 0.49 tonnes of carbon per person every year, while in India the figure is 1.68. These figures compare with a global average of 4.7 tonnes per person per year. In Britain, the figure is 8.3.

Climate Policy

Troubled spell: Climate change is likely to be a significant factor in the 10,655 farmer suicides in 2017 reported by the NCRB | Photo: Financial Express

10,655 farmers committed suicide in 2017: NCRB

Official data has revealed the issue of farmer suicides in India is far from being solved, but the numbers are showing a decline. As per data released on January 2, 2020 by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), 10,655 people involved in agriculture committed suicide in 2017. The NCRB’s 2016 data claimed 11,379 people involved in agriculture had committed suicide. The 2017 data revealed that of 10,655, 5,955 were farmers / cultivators and 4,700 agricultural labourers — both lower than in 2016. They comprised 8.2% of all suicide cases in the country in 2017. Maharashtra topped the list of most number of suicides followed by Karnataka.

Climate change has exacerbated India’s agricultural distress and has increasingly been implicated in farmer suicides across the country.  

SE Asia holds out on ISA as pushback for India’s RCEP rejection

India is having a tough time persuading South East Asian countries to join the International Sola Alliance, according to sources. While 84 countries have signed the framework ISA agreement, SE Asian countries are seen to be holding out against joining it as pushback for India not joining the  Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal. Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia, and Laos are yet to become a signatory of the ISA, the first treaty-based international government organization headquartered in India. Myanmar has signed and ratified the agreement, while Cambodia is yet to ratify it and has the status of observer.

Air Pollution

Onward with impunity: Coal plants around Delhi yet again missed the emissions deadline, as only one of 11 plants was found to have installed the required equipment by end of 2019 | Photo:

Coal plants around Delhi caught producing power illegally, without retrofitting equipment

Coal plants around Delhi yet again missed the emissions deadline after they were found operating illegally without the kits to cut down sulphur dioxide emissions. Authorities had warned that plants would be shut down if they functioned without emission-cutting technology beyond December 2019. Still, only one out of 11 plants in the highly polluted National Capital Region had installed the equipment at year-end. The coal fired utilities have already missed a deadline way back in December 2017, the government had extended it to 2019. The Central Pollution Control Board had threatened to shut down the plants.

Government data showed that Vedanta-owned TSPL plants were producing power illegally. Both state-run coal plants in UP and those at Ropar and Bhatinda, were functioning post the December 31 deadline. Senior officials at the state-run plants and private power utilities such as Vedanta and Larsen & Toubro Ltd said they had asked for yet another extension to the deadline, and that they had not received direction on whether they could continue to run the plants having not installed the kit.

China inspired ‘smog tower’ installed in Delhi

As the pollution hovered in ‘severe’ category, enough to make healthy people sick, Delhi installed its first-ever ‘smog tower’ as part of a pilot project in Lajpat Nagar market area. The ₹7-lakh tower is a 20-foot tall air purifier expected to cut 80% pollution in the area. Drawing inspiration from China, the Supreme Court of India has directed the Centre and state governments to install smog towers across the city as the pollution remains off the charts in many parts of the Capital.

The Delhi pilot project is being run by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay in collaboration with IIT Delhi, the Central Pollution Control Board and the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota had earlier helped in China’s Xi’an project, as well. 

NTPC to produce power with 6 million tonnes agro residue-based pellets in 2020

Millions of tonnes of crop residue produced after every harvest will not be burned openly now, as part of it will be used to generate power by state-owned power utility NTPC. One of the biggest power firms of India will acquire six million tonnes of agro residue-based pellets to co-fire its power plants along with coal in 2020, as part of its sustainable power generation plan. Currently, NTPC is using agro residue-based pellets at its Dadri thermal power plant. NTPC will use six million tonnes of pellets made out of stubble and husk, in its 21 thermal coal-fired power plants across the country. A tonne of pellets costs around ₹7,000. The company will procure 6 million tonnes of the pellets at the cost of around ₹4,200 crore.


Bundle it up: A new draft policy in India proposes to “bundle” the renewables with coal-based energy to avoid clean energy’s “biggest issue” of intermittency and ensure round-the-clock power to discoms | Photo: Stanford University

51% RE, rest coal power: India offers generators to sell renewable and fossil fuel power in a “bundle”

India has clarified its stance on bundling of power generated through fossil fuels and RE sources through a new draft policy. The new draft proposes to “bundle” the renewables with coal-based energy to avoid clean energy’s “biggest issue” of intermittency and ensure round-the-clock power to discoms. The Centre claims that the scheme to use a mix of energies will scale up the country’s renewable capacity and help states to fulfil their Renewable Purchase Obligations. The government has invited comments by January 16 from stakeholders, including the Solar Energy Corporation of India, Powergrid Corporation, Central Electricity Authority, state governments, discoms and the renewable energy industry. The generators will have to supply a mix of at least 51% of renewable energy (solar, wind or small hydro), and the rest from thermal sources, annually, keeping at least 80% availability per year.

The policy allows bidders to quote a composite single tariff for the “RE-thermal energy bundle” at the delivery point, which shall be at the central transmission utility (CTU) interconnection point.

Reconciliation: Andhra Pradesh begins clearing dues to renewable companies

In a massive relief to renewable power companies, the state of Andhra Pradesh started clearing dues to the companies, releasing ₹2,500 crore in several tranches. This will settle payments of ten months, from September 2018 to June 2019: covering around 40% of the dues, ET reported. As per a recent high court verdict, the discoms are paying only ₹2.44 per unit against tariffs of ₹4.80/unit mentioned in power purchase agreements (PPAs). The payments will benefit over 10 power developers, including Mytrah Energy, Hero Future Energies, Tata Power, Renew Power and Greenko. The new government’s move to reject existing PPAs in favour of fresh negotiations have severely dented investor confidence, blocking solar power investments throughout 2019. The case put the Centre and the state at loggerheads drawing flak from the governments of France, Canada and Japan. Andhra Pradesh also plans to clear dues with the help of working capital loans from central non-banking agencies such as the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA), and Power Finance Corporation (PFC) is also lending them funds.

Meanwhile, the Centre’s power company, NTPC, in a peace move, has offered to buy 300MW of green power from the cash-strapped Andhra Pradesh to discourage the state from cancelling renewables contracts. Andhra has India’s second-largest installed capacity of clean energy, with investments of around ₹60,000 crore.

India’s renewable year-end outlook drops from stable to negative

Corporate ratings agency ICRA revised the outlook for India’s renewable energy sector from stable to negative for the year 2019. The sector is slowing down for over two years because of payment dues by cash-strapped state distribution companies, as well as execution delays for projects bid out since 2017 due to issues of completion, land acquisition, connectivity and financing of under-construction projects. According to ICRA, tendering of wind and solar PV projects dropped by 37% to 10.6 GW in 9M CY2019 from 16.7 GW in the corresponding period of 2018. Many of the bids called by central nodal agencies remained under-subscribed, The Hindu reported. The agency expects nothing to change in 2020, renewable energy capacity addition will remain at about 8.5-9 GW for FY2020, similar to the capacity added in FY2019 it said.

India installed 181,000 solar irrigation pumps over three years 

India installed over 181,000 solar powered irrigation pumps over the past three years, the government said, adding that it will give priority to marginal farmers for installation of solar water pumps up to 7.5 HP capacity for which the government will cover 30% of the benchmark cost of the stand-alone solar pump. The solar pump scheme called the of PM-KUSUM scheme was launched throughout the country in March. The scheme offers installation of 10,000 megawatt (MW) capacity through renewable energy-based small power plants of 2 Mw capacity each in the rural areas; installation of 1.7 million off-grid solar water pumps; and solarization of 1 million existing grid-connected agriculture pumps. The government also plans to initially solarise 100,000 grid-connected pumps,  on a pilot basis, which will be scaled up to 1 million solarised agriculture pumps of 7.5 HP capacity each by 2022.

Britain produces more power from zero-carbon sources than fossil fuels in 2019

Britain, for the first time, produced more power from zero-carbon sources such as solar, wind and nuclear energy in 2019, than from thermal plants. Britain in 2019 became the first G7 country to commit to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and in November will host the United Nations’ international climate talks in Glasgow. The birthplace of coal plants, the country, data shows, produced about 48.5% of Britain’s electricity with wind, solar, hydro, nuclear and imports, while fossil fuels such as coal and gas contributed about 43%, and the rest came from biomass.

Electric Vehicles

Cued for entry: World’s cheapest electric car, Ora 1, manufactured by China-based Great Wall Motors could be making its entry into Indian markets in the near future | Photo: Car News China

World’s cheapest electric car coming to India, other new models to follow

Ora 1 — the world’s cheapest electric car — could be launched in India in the near future. It’s manufactured by China-based Great Wall Motors and could retail betweeen $8,680 – $11,293 (₹6.2 – 8 lakh). The car reportedly runs for around 140 miles (224km) on a single charge, powered by the 33kW motor.

It will debut for the Indian market at the upcoming auto expo in February. However, the pricing may change if it is saddled with import duties. Meanwhile, the market will also see the launch of four new electric cars – Tata’s Nexon EV, MG’s ZS EV, Nissan’s widely popular Leaf, and Mahindra’s eKUV100.

Government sanctions 2,636 charging stations in 62 cities under FAME II

Government of India has sanctioned the setting up of 2,636 new EV charging stations inn 62 cities across 24 states and union territories of the country under the second phase of the FAME India (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India) scheme . Under FAME II, 317 EV charging stations have been sanctioned in Maharashtra, while Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have each been sanctioned over 200 stations. The Department of Heavy Industry had earlier invited Expressions of Interest from large cities, smart cities, state/union territory capitals and cities from special category states for submission of proposal for availing incentives under FAME India Scheme Phase II for deployment of EV charging infrastructure within cities. The government sanction comes in response to the 106 proposals for about 7,000 EV charging stations that were received.

Only 1,309 e-cars sold in 2019, NE states to get EV chargers

New data by the Economic Times suggests only 1,309 electric cars were sold in India between April-November 2019 — which is less than 1% of the total passenger vehicle sales for the period. About 40% of the numbers came from the Mahindra e-Verito, while 37% from the Tata Tigor. The lack of charging infrastructure was identified as the key roadblock.

However, the north-eastern states will receive a total of 89 EV charging stations under phase II of the FAME scheme. Meghalaya will get 40 stations, Assam will get 20 and 29 will be installed in Sikkim. The time-frame for them going operational remains to be specified.

German taxi service brings in Tesla Model 3s over miniscule maintenance costs

A german taxi firm from Dusseldorf is adding 50 Tesla Model 3s to its fleet of 150 cars as it found the Model 3’s annual maintenance cost to average a mere €420 — in contrast to the €6,000 in fuel and maintenance it spends on each of its diesel cars. The news is also significant coming from the heart of the European IC engine auto market. Incidentally, the Tesla Model 3 may become the first EV to hit 1 million units in sales — and in much shorter time than its competitor, the Nissan Leaf.

Fossil Fuels

Coal to go cess-less? A proposal tabled by the PMO to axe the ₹400/tonne coal cess could attract global investment but squarely contradicts India’s RE ambitions | Photo: World Coal Organisation

India: Green cess on coal may be axed, coal mining may be opened up to any industry

A surprise proposal tabled by the Indian Prime Minister’s office may axe the ₹400/tonne green energy cess on coal mining to make fuel cheaper for coal power producers. If approved, the waiver could lower the input costs for stranded assets, and lower coal power tariffs to make it competitive with renewables.

The government may also open up over 200 new coal mines in the next five years to boost coal production, with output peaking at 400MT a year, and pass an ordinance to allow any entity registered in India to bid for commercial coal mining rights. The idea is to attract more global investment, but it squarely contradicts India’s responsibility towards reducing carbon emissions.

Coal plunges to 2% in UK’s power mix

Coal power’s share dropped to 2.1% in the UK’s power mix for 2019 as renewables overtook the fuel to become the largest source of power. Solar, wind and hydro together made up 26.5% of the share, with nuclear (also classified as a zero-carbon source) accounting for 16.8%. The country’s last few remaining coal plants will be shut down by 2025 as one of the EU’s largest economies steps up climate action, even though natural gas still accounts for 38.4% of the split.

Amazon and Google using artificial intelligence to help pump out even more oil

A new report suggests AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms developed by Google and Amazon are being used to help Big Oil automate the discovery of unexplored drilling sites and streamline their operations to maximise oil recovery. Such assistance would help drillers lower their cost of operations and possibly flood the market with cheaper oil.

AI works on constantly improving iterations that can far exceed human accuracy. However, both Google and Amazon are known to publicly celebrate their commitment to renewables and were unavailable for comments.