- A recent report on climate change by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that nearly 38 percent of the world’s population is vulnerable to the rise in sea level.
- COVID-19 has shown that if push comes to shove, countries do take extreme measures to save lives and livelihoods, and thus answer to what can be done to tackle climate change lies in changing our approach to both mitigate and adapt, write Anjal Prakash and Dhanapal G. in this commentary.
- They argue that protecting forests and forest restoration can improve the livelihood opportunities for many across India.
A recent study has made startling revelations about the rising global temperature. Using global gridded datasets for human population coupled with social and environmental variables, the study has plotted the heat maps explaining the past and present-day human climate niche. The projection shows that in the next 50 years, around one-third of the world’s population will be living in severe heat that is characterised as an average temperature of 29 degree Celsius. Of the top 10 most affected countries, three are in South Asia – India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The number of people exposed to the extreme heat is around 1.2 billion in India, 185 million in Pakistan and 85 million in Bangladesh.
The study confirms earlier assessments by the reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Scientists of IPCC, in their special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, informed, with high confidence, that human activities have already caused one degree Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels in 2018. This warming is likely to reach 1.5 degree Celsius between 2030 and 2052 if business as usual scenario continues.
The report showed how emissions can be brought to zero by mid-century if we stayed within the small remaining carbon budget for limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius. Further in 2019, IPCC’s special report on oceans and cryosphere showed – about 38 percent of the world population is vulnerable to the rise in sea level and changes in the cryosphere, the frozen part of the world due to global warming.
The big question is– what can we do about this? The answer lies in changing our approach to both mitigate and adapt. In many ways, COVID-19 has shown that if push comes to shove, countries do take extreme measures to save lives and livelihoods.
Protecting forests is very important
For India, one way of how we can both adapt and mitigate is to conserve and increase our forest resources. India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the UNFCCC Paris Agreement commits to creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes through afforestation by 2030. It is estimated that about 20 million hectares are required for this purpose. There is already an afforestation target of 10 million ha under Green India Mission (GIM) in progress. However, there is no road map to achieve the GIM and NDC targets, which must include priority landscapes for afforestation and target at improving ecosystem services, livelihood, and climate adaptation in addition to carbon sequestration.
We are a geographically diverse country with 15 different agroclimatic zones and 16 different forest types. The 70 million hectares of forests in India provide invaluable ecosystem services – biodiversity, water resources and climate change mitigation. Besides, forests provide direct livelihood support to over 300 million people living in forests and in the fringe villages through the supply of fuelwood and non-timber forest produces. Forests play an important role in India’s monsoon rains, reducing surface runoffs and providing perennial supply in the rivers in the post-monsoon season. Less than 50 percent of the cultivable land is under irrigation and the livelihood of millions of farmers and many economic activities depend on India’s monsoon.
Forest fragmentation due to infrastructure, mining, and agriculture expansion (like jhum cultivation), and forest fire, invasive species and grazing are major reasons for forest degradation and biodiversity loss in India. This, in turn, affects ecosystem services and human wellbeing. Over five million hectares of forest land is currently in a degraded state as per Forest Survey of India estimates. Although India has been consistently improving its forest cover in the last two decades. The ecosystem services provided by natural forests cannot be replaced with forest plantations.
India has shown a continual increase in forest cover from 65 million hectares (mha) in 2001 to 70.8 mha in 2017, but not without loss of existing forest. As per the government of India data, 20,314 hectares of forest land was diverted for non-forestry purpose during 2015-18, in the year 2019, it was 9,220 hectares. The increase in forest cover is largely due to compensatory plantations.
Between 2015-17, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh combined have lost 185 square kilometres of forest under very dense forest (VDF forests are those with above 70 percent canopy cover) category, while Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have added about 4255 sq. km under VDF as per the Forest Survey of India report. The loss of pristine rainforests is compensated with monoculture plantations, but the biodiversity lost is never recovered.
Forest restoration improves the livelihood opportunities
Forest landscape restoration approaches not only cater to the social and ecological needs thereby helping improve biodiversity and livelihood outcomes but also provide carbon sequestration to mitigate warming and impacts of climate change. Under the Bonn challenge, India has a restoration commitment of 15 million hectares of which 9.8 million has been taken by the government since 2011. At the 14th Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), India raised this ambition to restore 26 mha of degraded land by 2030, though the final Delhi Declaration did not mention details of financial mechanisms and land tenures.
So, one way in which we can mitigate the effect of global warming is to drastically increase our natural forest cover. This process will have three direct effects – it will not only help in mitigation and adaptation to climate change but will also contribute to green growth.
Forest-based economies run in millions and if we have better governance, the fruits of this growth will help the direct producers. Restoration of degraded forest and developing additional forests can mitigate the risk of climate change and help in climate adaptation. Improved forest resources can contribute to the economy and the livelihood of millions of vulnerable rural people. It would also help India in meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its international climate commitments. Achieving forest restoration and afforestation targets would require addressing several challenges like finance: investments including from private sector and engagement with local communities with tenure and appropriate benefit-sharing mechanisms. Forest landscape restoration is a potential option to rebuild the economy in a post-COVID-19 scenario with green growth and creating jobs.
Anjal Prakash is the research director and adjunct associate professor and Dhanapal G. is a senior analyst at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, India.
Banner image: Forest area in West Bengal. Photo by Tridibchoudhury/Wikimedia Commons.