Mumbai: 2023 became the year India weakened protections around its forests by amending the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act and also those around biodiversity, through the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Act.

While this was met with questions and protests, in separate moves, the government also brought in two new programmes that are supposed to benefit India’s environment and help it achieve one of its climate goals.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi even co-hosted the high-level event on Green Credits Programme at the global climate conference, COP28, in Dubai recently, inviting all nations to become a part of the international version of the Indian programme.

However, those too are contentious. While the government did bring in a trading system for carbon credits and introduced green credits for supposedly environmentally beneficial actions, these two programmes are facing criticism from experts over the lack of clarity and methodology, and whether they will have robust verification standards.

The weakened forest law threatens to open swathes of forest land for non-forest use, while the weakened biodiversity law threatens to leave out guardians of traditional knowledge of Indian biodiversity from access-benefit sharing.

As the year comes to a close, a look at how India’s environment policy fared in 2023.

Large tracts of forests lose protection

The Indian government changed the landmark law that governs its forests with the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act this year. It was passed by Parliament in the monsoon session.

The Act amended the erstwhile Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, to make it applicable to only certain types of land. These include land notified as a forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, or in government records after the 1980 Act came into effect.

The amended Act will not, however, be applicable for land converted to non-forest use before December 12, 1996. It also exempts from the purview of the Act land within 100 km of India’s border on the ground that it is needed for national security projects, small roadside amenities, and public roads leading to a habitation.

The amendment excludes land recorded as forest before October 25, 1980, but not notified as a forest, and land that changed from forest-use to non-forest-use before December 12, 1996.

The exemptions will impact at least 197,159 square kilometres (sq km) of forests--equivalent to three times the size of Sri Lanka (65,610 sq km)--as noted in an IndiaSpend analysis from August 2023. These forests--nearly 28% of India’s forest cover--lie outside of the Recorded Forest Area (RFA), and will lose protection under the new amendment.

The enactment of the new law led to protests by experts, environmentalists and activists, who say that apart from the amendment’s negative environmental implications, it will also violate the rights of forest-dwelling tribes, granted to them under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.

The FRA asks that local communities grant permission for diversion of forest land through their gram sabhas. Many of the proposed amendments adversely affect Scheduled Tribes and ‘other Traditional Forest Dwellers’, because if the land falls outside the scope of the FCA, it effectively eliminates the requirement of obtaining consent from the gram sabha for diversion of that land.

Who benefits from biodiversity?

The environment ministry, in December 2021, had introduced a Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill to amend the 2002 Biological Diversity Act which sought to achieve the following:

i. Reduce the pressure on wild medicinal plants by encouraging cultivation of medicinal plants;

ii. Encourage Indian systems of medicine,

iii. Facilitate fast-tracking of research, patent application process, transfer of research results while utilising the biological resources available in India,

iv. Decriminalise certain provisions

v. Bring more foreign investments in the chain of biological resources, including research, patent and commercial utilisation, without compromising national interest.

The Bill also exempts users of codified traditional knowledge and AYUSH practitioners from sharing benefits with local communities. It was passed in the Lok Sabha on July 25 and in the Rajya Sabha on August 1.

However, there are concerns over unchecked commercialisation as, per the new Act, users of codified traditional knowledge and Ayush practitioners are not required to share the benefits arising out of the use of biological resources with local communities, who are the traditional holders of this knowledge.

Earlier, offences were punishable with imprisonment of up to five years or a fine, or both. The Act decriminalises the offences and makes them punishable with a range of monetary penalties between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50 lakh, and in case of continuing contravention, there may be an additional penalty of up to Rs 1 crore. The Act adds that an adjudicating officer will hold an inquiry and decide the penalty.

Experts argue that the new law does not make it clear how much penalty to levy for what offense. Also, since the Act changed the adjudicating authority from a Judge to a government official, and deemed that the penalty decisions will be based on an inquiry instead of a judgment, “the question is whether it is appropriate to confer such discretion to government officials”, legislative research organisation PRS said in its note on the Bill.

Congress leader and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, too, made some of these points. After the Bill was passed in Rajya Sabha, he referred to it as “most retrograde” and one where “ease of doing business” takes precedence over “protection, preservation and regeneration”.

Emit, trade, compensate carbon

India’s total greenhouse gas national emissions have increased by 4.56% with respect to 2016, and by 115.42% since 1994.

India plans to develop the Indian Carbon Market (ICM) where a national framework will be established to decarbonise the Indian economy by pricing the greenhouse gas emissions through trading of the carbon credit certificates.

“A well-designed, competitive carbon market mechanism would enable the reduction of GHG emissions at the least cost, both at the level of entity, as well as the overall sector and drive faster adoption of clean technologies, in a growing economy like India,” the government believes.

It hopes that by accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy, the ICM will facilitate India’s climate goal of reducing the emissions intensity of the economy by 45% by 2030, as against 2005 levels.

It notified a carbon credit trading scheme in June 2023 wherein the Ministry of Power will identify sectors and obligated entities (companies) to be covered under the compliance mechanism. They will be given targets for reducing emissions. If an entity meets and exceeds those targets, it will be issued carbon credit certificates which can then be traded in the aforementioned carbon markets. The obligated entities that did not achieve their targeted reduction will have to meet their shortfall by purchasing the same.

While these may be compliance credits, India already is a participant to one of the world’s largest voluntary carbon credits markets (private markets with no oversight) in the world. One-fifth of the globally-issued voluntary credits originate in Indian projects. However globally, the model of voluntary carbon credits has been controversial and marked by incidents of fraud and greenwashing, as has been noted by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment’s October 2023 report.

Trishant Dev, author of the report and programme officer at CSE, said, “Carbon offsets are here to stay but the Indian compliance carbon markets and carbon trading will have several challenges to start with. How will you verify projects that claim to have reduced emissions intensity? The role of third-party verification agencies has been questioned in the case of voluntary markets already. Verification has been ineffective in a way.”

Proving ‘additionality’ (which means the initiative is unique and, in its absence, emission reduction would not have happened) will be another challenge, said Dev, as companies might claim credits for what the communities were already doing.

For the Green Good

On similar lines as the carbon credits trading programme, India announced a Green Credit Programme earlier this year to encourage water conservation and afforestation. The program identifies eight specific activities, encompassing tree plantation, water conservation, sustainable agriculture, waste management, air pollution reduction, mangrove conservation and restoration, Eco Mark (a government scheme for identifying environmentally friendly products), and sustainable building and infrastructure. Each activity is subject to predefined thresholds and benchmarks.

In simple words, the GCP encourages individuals, industries, and local bodies to undertake environmentally beneficial activities and generate green credits. Distinctive units are assigned to specific environmental activities, and they can be traded on a domestic market platform.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, together with President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE, co-hosted the high-level event on ‘Green Credits Programme’ at COP-28, on December 1 in Dubai. They invited all nations to join this Initiative.

During the event, a web platform, which would serve as a repository of policies and best practices that incentivise environment-friendly actions, was also launched. This initiative aims to facilitate global collaboration in planning, implementation and monitoring of environmentally positive actions through programs or mechanisms like green credits. India is the only country registered on the web platform as of now.

Dev of CSE has doubts about the Green Credit Programme, even though he said he would like to wait for more information on it to be released to understand its potential.

“For example, how will you develop methodologies to compare these very different environmental actions?,” Dev asked. “How will you measure their impact? Who do you sell green credits to? There is very little material on GCP right now, so it is difficult to tell how it goes.”

(Esha Bahal, intern with IndiaSpend, contributed to this report.)

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