New Delhi: India has turned to its vast forest cover to absorb its growing greenhouse gas emissions and stem international pressure to sign on to binding carbon reduction targets.
Authorities pinned their hopes earlier this month on the concept of carbon capture in an effort to boost India’s environmental credentials ahead of global talks in Copenhagen aimed at reaching a consensus on fighting climate change.
Green cover: The Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka. Indian authorities have decided to focus on increasing the density of woodlands through silviculture, or controlled growth and management of trees. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP
But with forest expansion restricted and woodland degradation on the rise, it is likely to be an uphill battle, experts say.
“On paper it looks okay but it has its limitations,” said Lalit Kumar of the Green Indian States Trust, a non-governmental organization that contributed to the recently released State of the Environment report.
Forests currently cover 21% of India’s geographic area and absorb around 11% of its greenhouse gases—equivalent to 24 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—and the government expects that amount to increase after billions of dollars of investment.
“The pressure of development as well as agriculture-related activities is borne by the forest,” said H.S. Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Forest Management. “This has historically been the reason for their degradation.”
Under a plan unveiled by environment minister Jairam Ramesh earlier this month, Indian authorities have decided to focus on increasing the density of woodlands through silviculture, or controlled growth and management of trees.
Just under 2% of Indian forests are high-density, meaning they have the best potential for capturing carbon emissions, while 10% falls under the medium density category, according to the government.
A total of $2.5 billion has been allocated to regenerate and sustain the country’s jungles and forests to better serve as a carbon sink, in addition to annual funding of one billion dollars. Environmentalists say regenerating forests for carbon capture is a laudable aim but difficult to achieve in practice.
India currently produces around 5% of the world’s global carbon emissions, at a rate of just over one tonne per capita—much lower than the per capita levels in developed nations but still substantial given its population of 1.2 billion.
It has insisted that any attempts to cap its emissions at Copenhagen in December will hamper economic growth and efforts to improve the living standards of millions of impoverished citizens, widening the gap with rich nations.
This is the argument it plans to take to the UN summit, where countries will discuss a new international accord for when the Kyoto Protocol’s requirements expire in 2012.
India hopes the forest regeneration plan will reduce pressure to agree to reduction targets. But even Ramesh has admitted that increasing forest cover in India will be a difficult task.“We cannot increase the area under forests because of many reasons—demographic and otherwise—but the quality of our forest cover needs to improve,” he said. “The objective of India’s forest policy is to ensure in the next 10 years that all our forest cover is high density or medium density.”