India Relies On Deforestation & An Impossible Pledge To Meet A Major Climate-Change Commitment

29 Oct 2021 9 min read  Share

With no scientific backing, India has pledged—a right-to-information query reveals—to plant trees over an area the size of West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand combined to meet a global commitment that can soak up the greenhouse gases it produces every year currently. In doing so, it threatens the land and forest rights of India’s most marginalised communities and increases their risks to climate-change impacts.

Himachal Pradesh/CLASIQH, UNSPLASH

New Delhi: On 31 October 2021, world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will gather for the 26th meeting of the Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) in the Scottish city of Glasgow at a time when the planet is warming at record levels. 

Much attention will be on the progress and effectiveness of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), pledges to cut emissions, set by countries under the 2015 Paris Agreement

Greenhouse gas concentrations hit a new record in 2020 despite economic slowdowns brought by temporary pandemic lockdowns, the World Meteorological Organisation announced on 25 October, five days after the United Nations warned fossil-fuel plans were “dangerously out of sync” with limits set at Paris.

The world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US, India has consistently maintained that it is on track to meet its NDCs, having promised to reduce emissions intensity, increase installed capacity of non-fossil fuel-based energy resources and create additional carbon sinks. 

“India’s NDCs are quite ambitious,” union environment minister Bhupendra Yadav told Reuters in a recent interview. “We are doing more than our fair share. Our NDCs are more progressive than major polluters.”

There are three ways of meeting NDC targets that India has pledged: by cutting emissions intensity (the volume of emissions per unit of gross domestic product), replacing sources of greenhouse gases with clean energy, such as solar energy, and creating carbon sinks, such as trees, that can absorb emissions.

Yadav said India is on track to increase its non-fossil fuel capacity, which currently accounts for a quarter of installed energy sources. 

India has not revealed any plans to cut emissions, and Yadav said the union cabinet will decide India’s position at COP26, but it is apparent Modi’s government hopes to use carbon sinks as an internal offset mechanism for India’s emissions.

Yet, no document is publicly available on the methodology and the process followed in the development of India’s NDC targets. Especially contentious is the government's target of creating an “additional carbon sink” of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) through new forest and tree cover by 2030. 

What Our RTI Query Revealed

In response to a right-to-information (RTI) application on the methodology used and strategy deployed to achieve the additional carbon-sink target, the ministry of environment, forest & climate change (MoEF&CC) directed us to a 2019 document prepared by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), an organisation under the ministry that assesses the country’s forest resources. 

The FSI document, however, is unclear on the interpretation of the NDC. The confusion is over the use of the word “additional”. 

Does the NDC mean additional quantities of forest carbon over and above what can be achieved in what is called the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario? Or does it mean that only the shortfall from what can be achieved in the BAU scenario should be met through additional forest & tree cover? 

Amidst the confusion, including over the baseline year—the year against which additions to forest carbon are measured in the future—the document goes on to say that the “strategy for achieving the NDC target cannot be developed” without clarification from the MoEF&CC.

Clearly, the FSI has little idea about the rationale that went into arriving at this NDC target. The response also establishes that the quantification of the target, done in 2015, lacks any scientific basis. 

“From day one, I have been saying it is a bogus NDC,” Jairam Ramesh, former union minister of environment and forests, who also served as the leading figure in India’s climate diplomacy, said in February 2021. 

“The numbers that were put out for forest contribution to the carbon sink bear no actual relation to reality,” said Ramesh. 

India has consistently posited its forests as a net sink of CO2 emissions. But the estimation of forest carbon stock is widely contested (here, here and here). 

In the absence of a standardised methodology of counting forest carbon, academic and official estimates on forest carbon vary widely. The technical body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has also indicated that India’s official numbers could be an overestimation. 

Several analyses suggest that the target is unrealistic and unattainable. But the Indian government’s optimism on carbon sequestration potential has remained unfazed and so has its stance (here) that the target is within reach.

Why India’s Afforestation Target Is Hard To Believe

India’s NDC requires bringing 25 to 30 million hectares of land under trees and forests by 2030 or the size of the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal combined.  It isn’t clear where the land will come from. 

A key strategy of the Indian government to “maintain and enhance forest area and forest cover of the country” is compensatory afforestation.

Compensatory afforestation is done on non-forest or degraded forestlands, when natural forests are cleared for “development” and issues of national security or importance. India has lost 257,950 ha—or four times the size of Mumbai—of natural forests to such deforestation between 2008 to 2020. 

Using the compensatory afforestation requirement, the government wants to rebrand this loss as reforestation. Compensatory afforestation is also a significant source of funds for forest bureaucracies and the accumulation of more than $6 billion or about Rs 38,000 crore—from a variety of contributors, such as private and public-sector companies—in the CAMPA Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management And Planning Authority) fund until 2015 has most likely driven the ambitious NDC target. 

Dependence on large, centralised funds is known to create pressures to set unrealistic targets. Effectively, India is relying on deforestation of natural forests to meet unscientific carbon-sink commitments. 

In order to meet such unrealistic targets, participatory processes are often bypassed.  India’s pursuit of the NDC target is primarily through large-scale afforestation or reforestation programmes, implemented by the forest bureaucracy. 

This, in turn, is leading to the enclosing of lands and forests of some of India’s most marginalised and climate-vulnerable communities—tribal communities and other forest dwellers—for climate-change mitigation, in violation of their legal rights (here and here) under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) or PESA Act, 1996, and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. 

Plantations And How They Cause Conflict

Plantation-induced conflicts are rising, as Reuters and Undark have reported. India’s NDC document, submitted to the UNFCCC, makes no mention of respecting and safeguarding the rights of its indigenous and vulnerable communities. 

A 2018 study recorded close to 100 case studies of conflicts in areas where customary lands and forests of local communities had been forcibly brought under compensatory afforestation by the forest department without informing, consulting or seeking the consent of the communities dependent on them. 

Other programmes, such as the National Afforestation Programme, Green India Mission and state schemes have also been aggressively promoting plantations. Telangana ku Haritha Haram (Green Garland), the state government’s flagship programme to increase its forest cover to 33%, is a case in point. 

Listed as a climate change mitigation action from the forestry sector in India’s submission to the UNFCCC, Haritha Haram has seen the eruption of huge protests where plantations have come up on podu (shifting cultivation) lands of tribal communities in the Scheduled Areas

Protestors, including women, have been physically abused, manhandled, threatened with false charges and arrested, according to local groups and researchers. Tribal communities in “scheduled areas” are guaranteed special rights under the Constitution and legal rights under the PESA and FRA laws. 

But these rights have been disregarded by the forest department (here and here). Communities now live in fear of dispossession from traditional lands with wide-ranging implications for their food and livelihood security. 

The push to meet targets would also lead to monoculture plantations of fast-growing species. For instance, the Bonn challenge calls for restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded lands and forests globally by 2030. 

A 2019 assessment that analysed the small print of government declarations about the kind of forests that would be restored found that 45% of the promised new forests would be monoculture plantations. Monoculture plantations provide few ecosystem functions

Indeed, studies increasingly establish that they often decrease biodiversity and contribute directly to a greater incidence of forest fires. Consequently, forests become less resilient and forest-dependent communities, who are the frontline of climate disasters such as forest fires, more vulnerable to climate-change impacts. 

That large-scale land-based mitigation measures such as afforestation/reforestation have “adverse side effects for adaptation, desertification, land degradation, biodiversity and food security” has also been affirmed in the 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

India Cannot Plant Its Way Out Of Climate Crisis

India’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have risen by 33% from 2010 to 2016, but the government has made no commitments to reduce them significantly. 

Instead, it is increasingly relying on the land and land-use sectors including forestry (LULUCF) to meet its climate pledges, with the share of this sector in removing India’s internal GHG emissions rising steadily over the years. The forestry NDC target can almost entirely soak up India’s 2016 annual GHG emissions

In the absence of rapid emissions reduction and deep mitigation in other sectors, reliance on large-scale, land-based, climate change mitigation is projected to increase, according to the IPCC’s 2019 report. 

The report further warns that aggravating existing pressures on land entail “higher risk of mitigation failure and of temperature overshoot and a transfer of the burden of mitigation and unabated climate change to future generations.” 

Depending on carbon sinks to remove CO2 is also ill-advised, the IPCC report has said, as disturbances, such as flood, drought, fire, or pest outbreaks, expected to increase due to the climate crisis, could very likely lead to reversal of these sinks. 

Clearly, India cannot plant its way out of the climate crisis.

What Is Possible Now?

For more than two decades, India has advocated a “democratization of carbon space” and “fair utilisation of this share” to justify the growth in its GHG emissions. Climate justice has been at the core of this advocacy strategy. 

But experts have termed its climate targets and policies “highly insufficient” to keep the temperature rise below 2°C, primarily because of its continued reliance on fossil fuels. 

If India’s climate action comes at the expense of food sovereignty, livelihood security and undermining legal rights of its marginalised communities, it will be denying climate justice to them. Women will be disproportionately impacted, both by the climate crisis and the implications of such mitigation actions.

“Instead of focusing on arbitrary and unrealistic targets such as the NDC, India must improve the resilience of ecosystems and landscapes that sustain communities who will be the worst impacted by climate change, despite contributing the least to it”, said C R Bijoy from the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national forum for forest dwellers.

Empowering these communities to manage and restore ecosystems has been proven to deliver positive climate, biodiversity and sustainable development benefits globally. 

India has some of the world’s most inclusive land and forest governance frameworks to legally empower communities in resource management. Supporting their implementation will not only help India utilise these benefits but also secure climate justice for its most marginalised communities. 

(Shruti Agarwal is an independent policy researcher working on issues of natural resource governance, community rights and climate change.)