India can mitigate climate risks by utilising forests as carbon sinks only if indigenous people and local populations play a pivotal role in protecting and developing green cover
Planting trees and protecting or regenerating forests are natural solutions to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to address the risks of climate change. Such natural solutions are cost-effective and provide win-win pathways that not only support the environment but can also enhance livelihoods for the local population.
While planning solutions for carbon removal, its environment and developmental trade-offs need to be considered. To ensure that these solutions do not amplify insecurity for the poor and marginalised population, especially 250 million people who are directly dependent on forests in India for their sustenance and livelihoods.
Integrating trees in multiple land uses will support achieving India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to sequester additional 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent by 2030 under the Paris Climate agreement. While developing roadmaps to meet the forestry NDC was necessary earlier, it is critical now, as our worst fears are confirmed by the IPCC 1.50 special report on global warming.
The Restoration Opportunities Atlas of India, a recently launched web platform, supports developing roadmaps to meet India’s NDC and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets. This atlas shows that in 87 million hectares in India (25% of area), there is potential for carbon removal through agroforestry, which combines timber, fruits, fodder, and fuel with food crops. Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh have the highest potential for agroforestry in India.
Notably, the enabling policy to scale up agroforestry is in place, with India being the first country to have a national agroforestry policy, which has been bolstered with domestic missions like the national agroforestry mission and the national bamboo mission to accelerate the work on the ground. It has been five years since the policy was formulated, however it has not yet led farmers to plan for greater tree crop interface on their farm lands due to a mix of policy, legal, market and technical barriers.
There is growing evidence that agroforestry systems could provide win-win solution to mitigating climate change risks, improving farmers income, food and nutritional security, and increasing farmers capacity to adapt to climate risks. With feminization of agriculture in India, agroforestry interventions could also reduce risks of women farmers and diversify the nutrition basket of the family.
As much as 5% of India’s area is dense forest and should be continued under protection to deliver multiple ecosystem services. In 10% of the area, there is opportunity to establish near contiguous tracts of forest and tree cover. States like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have the highest opportunity for establishing near contiguous forests.
Additionally, if forest lands like the Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgarh are protected from risks such as land diversion and fragmentation, it could sequester an additional above-ground carbon of 4 million tonnes. The amount of carbon sequestered depends upon the existing tree species, as well as the extent of improvement possible in forest and tree cover.
Synergistic pathways needed
Importance of forests for our wellbeing is also underscored by the 14th National Finance Commission of India which, through its recommendations, made the largest ecological fiscal transfer (INR 2.96 trillion or USD 43.13 billion) in the world by incentivising states that have higher forest cover. The commission recognised that uneven distribution of forests among states leads to uneven direct and indirect costs that states may have to bear for protecting and maintaining forests.
States also experience disproportionately the consequence of environment or development trade-offs when planning for conservation or development. The national level roadmap would have to consider these horizontal asymmetries.
The need of the hour is developing synergistic pathways that not only enables meeting the forestry target under the Paris Climate agreement, but also the commitments made under the SDGs as many of the SDGs and the associated targets can be mapped to forestry and tree cover indicators directly or indirectly.
At the sub-national level, it would be crucial that the roadmaps are inclusive by design, sustainable, based on sound science and take into consideration environmental and developmental trade-offs associated with an action. For instance, while developing pathways, choice of tree species and their impact on the soil and micro climatic conditions need to be considered.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the change in climate will impact forest types in India, which in turn will impact the regulatory services (water, biodiversity, carbon, etc.) and provisioning services(firewood, fodder, etc.) associated with forest ecosystems, and increase vulnerability of the forest dependent population. Another integral element of the roadmap, would be its robustness to support landscape level restoration planning, as there is increasing evidence of salience of landscape approaches to scale site level interventions and to plan for environment and developmental needs of the dependent population.
While the Indian government plans interventions to achieve these commitments, special attention to enabling conditions like tenure security and resource rights including over trees is crucial. Given the risks from climate change, and its associated vulnerabilities are higher for the forest-dependent populations, small land holding farmers, and women.
These risks are exacerbated with recent orders like of eviction of forest dwellers from forests. Paying attention to enabling conditions makes climate sense, given the global evidence that indigenous people and local populations play an essential role in protecting forests, which, in turn, support lowering CO2 emissions.
Ruchika Singh is Director, Sustainable Landscapes and Restoration program, World Resources Institute, India.