Mumbai: India is targeting to reduce its projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030.

The country's forests can help this effort by segregating and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. The problem is that India's forests appear to be receding.

India's tree cover has declined by 5% in the last decade between 2001 and 2020 (official figures claim otherwise), even as afforestation schemes are going slow.

India has also not signed a global pledge to halt deforestation.

India lost 66,000 hectares (ha) or 0.65% of humid primary forests--defined as mature, natural, humid tropical forest cover that has not been completely cleared and regrown in recent history--between 2017 and 2019, per data accessed on November 7 from the Global Forests Watch dashboard, a World Resources Institute platform.

Also, between 2001 and 2020, India lost 1.93 million ha of tree cover (defined as all vegetation taller than 5 metres in height as of 2000), a 5% decline. This is about 14 times the size of Delhi. In 2020 itself, India lost 132,000 ha of natural forests, as per the dashboard.

However, official figures show an increase in India's forest and tree cover. The Forests Survey 2019 estimated a 5,188 sq km or 0.65% increase in India's forest and tree cover by geographical area between 2017 and 2019. These figures have been contested by environmentalists for how they define a forest, as we discuss later.

Carbon sinks target

A carbon sink is a natural reservoir that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and tree and forest covers serve the purpose the best. India committed in 2015 to creating additional carbon sinks that can hold 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent (metric used to compare emissions from other greenhouse gases to CO2) by 2030. This is to be achieved by adding to India's forest and tree cover. But the target has been described as ambitious and has been debated for its meaning, feasibility and science.

More than 130 world leaders from countries that hold 90% of the world's forests committed to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030 as part of the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use. India, as we said, did not sign this pledge.

We sought a comment from the environment ministry on this and will update the story once we get a response.

Environmental researchers say that India did not join the pledge because it maintains that its forest cover has increased. "The moment you acknowledge, by way of a pledge, that you will reduce deforestation, you admit that there is a conservation deficit," said Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher at the Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for Policy Research. "In recent years, India's position has been that there has been an increase in forest cover, and there is a net gain (in forest cover) by calculating lands with trees outside forest areas and compensatory plantation areas."

Defining forest cover

Every two years, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) undertakes an assessment of the country's forest resources and presents the results in the 'India State of Forests Report', commonly known as Forests Survey. India reported an increase of 0.56% in its forest cover, 1.29% in tree cover and 0.65% in forest and tree cover combined in the Forests Survey 2019, compared to 2017.

These findings have been disputed, as IndiaSpend has reported.

In India, the definition of "forest cover" includes all patches of land where the density of the tree canopy exceeds 10% and where the area exceeds 1 ha. But this is irrespective of the nature of land use and the ownership and species of trees. "Tree cover" includes all patches of land with trees, even less than 1 ha.

Scientists and experts have pointed out that this definition of forest cover is flawed because it includes plantations, orchards and the like. This issue was raised in the technical assessment report of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on India's Forest Reference Level (FRL) submitted in 2018. (The FRL is the baseline emissions level from any forest.)

"India includes all land that meets the forest thresholds, including tree crops, fruit orchards, bamboo and agroforestry plantations," the assessment had noted. "India explained that areas of orchard, bamboo and palm could not be delineated and therefore their area was unknown. However, these areas are included in the FRL if they meet the forest definition thresholds." It added that the data and information used by India in constructing its FRL were partially transparent, not complete and therefore not fully in accordance with guidelines.

Between April 2008 and March 2020, nearly 258,000 ha of forest land has been diverted for non-forest use under the Forest (Conservation) Act in India, the government told the Lok Sabha in March.

"A forest cover increase is not a comment on the quality of our forests," said Kohli of CPR. "You could continue to divert forests, plant trees or undertake commercial plantations outside the forest area and it would still count as increasing cover. It is possible to delineate plantations from actual forest but if you have decided to show that we are well on our way to meeting our climate target, the methodology then responds to that."

Slow pace of afforestation

To create additional carbon sinks, India intends to fully implement the Green India Mission, create a 140,000-km tree line on both sides of national highways, grow plantations along the river Ganga and reduce the consumption of wood or biomass as fuel.

These projects are to be funded by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), a government body to manage compensatory afforestation, the National Afforestation Programme (NAP) and others. There are several state-level afforestation schemes too, such as Telangana's Telanganaku Haritha Haram.

How have these schemes fared? About 19.37 million trees were planted under the National Green Highways plan between 2016 and November 2020, according to India's third biennial update report to the UNFCCC submitted in February 2021. The National Highways Authority of India earmarked Rs 300 crore in 2019-20 for the programme and has made a provision of Rs 500 crore for 2020-21.

Between 2015 and 2020, India was supposed to plant trees on 142,000 ha of land but managed 112,000 ha (78%), as per data on Green India Mission in the report to UNFCCC.

No clarity on meaning of 'additional'

India's forest and tree cover can absorb 29.62 billion tonnes CO2eq, as per the last FSI assessment of 2015 from this report. This is projected to increase to 31.87 billion tonnes CO2eq by 2030.

India wants to add to its carbon sinks but after it submitted this carbon sinks target (as part of its NDC, or nationally determined contributions to cutting emissions, under the Paris Agreement) in 2015, questions arose about the word "additional". For example, what is the base year for calculating an additional 2.5-3 billion CO2 equivalent carbon sink? How will this addition be compared to existing carbon sinks?

The Forest Survey of India referred to this lack of clarity in its 2019 report titled 'India's NDC of creating an additional carbon sink: Possibilities, scale and costs for formulating strategy'.

"It is important to have clarity on the baseline year and correct interpretation of the NDC target," said the report, released four years after the NDC was set, with 11 years to go for the deadline. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change should "issue clarification on these two critical questions without which strategy for achieving the NDC target cannot be developed", the report added.

Carbon sinks will need effort, resources

Given the lack of clarity, the FSI report looked at three scenarios for increasing carbon sinks, the least expensive of which will cost Rs 1.14 lakh crore. The resources needed, cost and effort will be considerable, said experts.

N.H. Ravindranath, an expert on India's forests, who has worked closely with CAMPA, said the word "additional" implies in addition to existing measures. But the government would need to decide the baseline year first, he said. He is of the view that the forestry NDC can be achieved if India finds the money, the land and a plan for it.

"This level of afforestation will require 25 to 30 million hectares of land. Planting along railways tracks and rivers is only a small component. In India, all land is in some use, by someone, which is a challenge," said Ravindranath. "Besides, we need Rs 1 lakh crore every year to achieve this NDC. We need an operational plan for where we are and how we will get there. Every year lost will make it more difficult."

Ravindranath is of the view that India should set 2020 as the base year for this NDC and that existing forests too should be protected because organic carbon in the soil takes decades to recharge once forests are lost.

Questions about assessment of carbon sinks

A critique of the carbon sink commitment in a paper titled 'India and Climate Change', published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources in 2018, flagged a couple of issues. First, the capability of Indian forests to sequester carbon could have been overestimated due to the inclusion of plantations in forest cover. The paper also pointed out that official estimates do not measure carbon emissions when forests are lost to deforestation and degradation.

"In sum, the official Indian stance has consistently been that Indian forests are sequestering carbon and can sequester more. Some academic studies are beginning to question the biophysical basis of this claim, but no resolution has been reached," said the paper.

The carbon sink target is "an exceedingly difficult and ambitious task that will require immediate reforms as well as strong political and financial commitment from the government", according to a January 2021 policy brief by the Delhi-based think-tank The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

TERI estimates a gap of 82% in the money spent annually (Rs 11,256 crore) on state and central schemes and the total money required (Rs 60,000 crore per year) to achieve 2.5–3.0 billion tonnes of CO2e through additional forest and tree cover.

Experts also said that India's pursuit of widespread afforestation/reforestation to reach its carbon sink target could impact local communities. "There have been several studies and reports that CAMPA plantations are destructive to forest ecology," said independent researcher Tushar Dash, who works on issues around forest rights. "Massive plantations on ground, particularly monoculture species, are creating land conflict and affecting rights of forest communities dependent on them as well as affecting biodiversity. Current mitigation policies need to be changed radically. There should be a forest rights-based climate commitment."

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