Photo: Shreeshan Venkatesh

Will the new climate-forest interface come at the cost of India’s natural forests?

As climate change forces the commodification of carbon, the risks of minimising forests to simply reservoirs of carbon are very real for forested nations like India

Among the multitude of ecosystem services provided by forests, none is perhaps more critical at this juncture than their ability to capture and store carbon. As the amount of carbon in the atmosphere ticks upwards, the need to suck it out is becoming harder to ignore. Despite advances in carbon sequestration technologies over the past decade, forests still offer the most feasible storage potential. Unsurprisingly, there has been renewed interest in these natural reservoirs of carbon as cost-effective sinks, to be planned and expanded.

As pressure grows to dial back the volume of carbon pumped out into the atmosphere, the near future is likely to prominently feature strategies that commodify carbon emissions such as carbon pricing and trading. In terms of forest management, this would imply shifting of gears. The governing perspective is likely to bend away from conservation and towards using them as carbon reservoirs- with potential interests from businesses and governments alike. The implication of such a strategy is an approach that can disturb the age-old conservation equilibrium of the nation. An alternative approach can be more aligned with expanding artificial forests, rather than fumbling with natural ones.

Moreover, with the rise of multi-billion dollar forest funds added to the mix, we may argue if the commodification of carbon necessitates a complete break from conservation approaches, and in the process sever a range of irreplaceable ecosystem services provided by natural forests?

Growing Focus on Forests for Climate Mitigation

After a few centuries of reckless industrialisation, atmospheric CO2 levels (the major Green House Gas, GHG) has risen from as low as 172 ppm in the pre-industrial era to 417 ppm now. The result has been a rapid climb up the climate change curve- disastrous impacts are multiplying and growing in intensity year-on-year. The international response emerged as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which was signed in 1992 to tackle the climate challenge. Later, the Kyoto Protocol under the Convention was signed in 1997, heralding various other initiatives such as Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), etc. to enable the trading of carbon credits including from forestry as important GHG mitigation instruments.

However, despite efforts at the individual, national and international levels to contain the climate crises, the objective of halting and bending the carbon curve has largely remained unfulfilled. The Paris Agreement that replaced the Kyoto Protocol in 2015 meant no cap on emissions (as opposed to KP) and countries can choose their climate actions. With this paradigm shift, there has been a clear return of emphasis on forestry as a cost-effective carbon sequestration option.

Article 5 of the Paris agreement expects all countries to conserve and enhance forests including by incentivising action for reducing emissions from forests without losing the importance of non-carbon benefits from forests. Developing forested countries like India, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, by virtue of having significant forests have invited much renewed global interest for preventing their forest losses through international assistance. India, for instance, has included a significant forest element in their climate action plans or the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted to the UNFCCC.

India’s Shifting Stances on Forests

Forestry outlook in India, a country with traditional conservation ethos, has changed significantly over the past century. From a prolonged phase of exploitation under the colonial British administration, it gradually changed to forest conservation after independence, evident from the texts of forest policies of 1952 & 1988. Despite clear provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 that aimed at preventing forest diversions, natural forests continued to be diverted and tried to be replaced with non-performing ‘compensatory afforestation’. As a result, 1.5 million hectares (mha) of pristine forests were cut down after the Act (after around 4.5 mha diverted during 1947-80). The diversions indicate that the conservation principle was not given due attention, an observation substantiated by the Comptroller and Auditor General report in 2013 that reviewed the authority set up to plant new forests to compensate forest losses from diversions under the Act- the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority or CAMPA. The review showed lack of available lands for afforestation, discrepancies in CAMPA funds utilization, and other problems faced by the state forest departments in reforesting available lands.

A modern market-driven national outlook towards forests has emerged following the Kyoto Protocol period, readily reflected in national forest policy revision drafts of 2016 and 2018. The newer policies talk of enhancing carbon capture in wood, carbon-tax, etc. among other objectives of forest management in India. Under the Paris agreement, India has committed 2.5-3.0 GtCO2 increase of carbon sink by 2030 through additional forestry measures in addition to its existing forest carbon stock of around 26 GtCO2.

India’s forestry commitment in NDC would require reforesting/afforesting an additional 6.8 to 8.2 million hectares, roughly the area of Assam, of non-forest lands with the same biomass density as natural forests. Interestingly, despite the increasing ‘forest and tree cover (FTC)’ figures, the growing stock (trees volume) and carbon in India’s natural forests is either degrading or remains roughly constant across various assessments done over the last few decades. Even more alarming is the chronic degradation of India’s forests indicated by declining forest cover in officially demarcated forest areas.

Money is not a limitation for India’s forests

In the recent past, there has been significant growth in funds for forestry sector in India. The $7.5 billion fund for compensatory afforestation under CAMPA, pooled from user agencies that cleared natural forests in the past, is a big attraction for states. Further, 14th and 15th Finance Commission (of 2013 & 2017), which allocated funds to various states of India, gave 7.5% and 10% weightage for forest cover, respectively. It means under the 15th Finance Commission, about $9-$16 billion per year will be allocated to India’s states based on forest cover alone- a huge pool that can be utilised to replenish and maintain the country’s forests.  Moreover, there is a constant flow of international assistance for forestry and landscape restoration (an approach of restoring all land uses including forests over an area) into India from various agencies.

One estimate showed that 1952 and 1988 national forest policies goals of covering one-third of country’s geographical area under forests would require total investment of $16 billion between 2015 and 2030. One can argue that this requirement can be met by CAMPA and Finance Commission allocations alone. This will, for the time being, obviate the requirement of international / climate funds for forests and meet the NDC targets domestically.  What is required is to utilise the available domestic funds efficiently with a commitment to plant and save the trees to maturity.

The desired strategy

Considering the competing demands for scarce land resources and concerns for sparing natural forests for conservation, agroforestry is seen as a win-win solution. But the related tree farming framework in India is in need of some serious attention. Also, moving forward requires strategic prioritisation on whether and to what extent India can afford to treat its remaining natural forest resources as carbon commodity.

In summary, in the midst of several components of NDC, REDD+, CDM, NAMA, Bonn challenge, Sustainable Development Goals, Green India Mission, etc., India’s national priorities need to be chosen between forests as carbon sinks alone or forests providing plethora of other ecosystem services. Carbon capture/sequestration will in any case be a natural by-product of forest conservation and agroforestry. Given the present and potential domestic funding, finance for saving our natural forests and creating new ones must not be a limitation.

Against this backdrop, the strategy for forests in India can be three-pronged:

a) To make enabling environment for promoting agroforestry and private plantations economy. This can enhance long-term atmospheric CO2 capture from short-rotation trees/bamboo into high shelf-life products such as furniture;

b) Last remaining natural biodiverse forests must be conserved using ecosystem based and forest landscape restoration approaches for continued ecosystem services, including long-term carbon capture in living trees, biodiversity and healthy soils; and lastly,

c) Even though forests matter and would continue to be part of national climate strategy, forestry measures should not be seen as a substitution for lowering emissions. Therefore, planning ambitious climate strategy is pivotal in the wake of increasing climate crises.

Natural forests provide us with a multitude of ecosystem services, just one of which is sequestration of carbon. Therefore, when climate change is forcing us to re-imagine the development versus conservation paradigm, best alternatives of forest finance should be adopted to promote sovereignty in overall natural resources governance.

Views expressed in this article are personal.

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