Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Carbon sink: the states have to be equal partners

Expanding India's carbon sink to absorb emissions is a powerful proposal

A fortnight ago, India made its first commitment to reduce the carbon intensity of its economic activity, ahead of the international climate change talks to be held in Paris in December. The move was widely welcomed, but the question of how the target of reducing emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 33-35% by 2030 with 2005 as the base year can be achieved remains unanswered.

Will it be a cap-and-trade system such as the one China has promised; a carbon tax such as the one discussed in some recent government discussions on the increase in excise duties on fuel; or subsidies for newer forms of energy such as solar?

The blueprint for achieving the green pledge is rather blurry, but one powerful proposal is the one to expand India’s carbon sink to absorb emissions. India has committed to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through a growth in forest and tree cover by 2030. But again, the strategy to achieve this commitment is not clear, especially since the current rate of forest cover growth could be inadequate.

According to the Indian Council of Forestry and Research estimates, from 1995 to 2005, carbon stocks stored in our forests registered an annual increment of 37.68 mt of carbon or 138.15 mt of CO2 equivalent.

At this rate of growth, India would be able to capture carbon emissions equivalent to 2.07 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030, leaving it around 0.5 to 1 billion tonnes short of the target by 2030.

India plans to raise its forest cover to 33% of its land area through a planned afforestation drive, which includes a number of programmes and initiatives such as the Green India Mission, green highways policy, financial incentive for forests, plantation along rivers, the United Nations REDD+ programme to create financial value for the carbon stored in forests, and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority in India.

Having the states on board is crucial in this exercise. Forests fall in the concurrent list of the Constitution, and are the responsibility of the states as well as the centre. An inter-state comparison of forest area in the latest Forest Survey, shows us that states with maximum forest cover—such as Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (with the exception of Maharashtra)—have all shown a dip in forest cover from 2011 to 2013. The north-eastern states, with more than 75% forest cover, have also shown a decrease. Overall, forests expanded at the rate of 0.18% a year.

Forests and the positive externalities associated to them have an impact both on the revenue capacities and the expenditure needs of states. As a result, there are tensions between growth and environmental concerns. The quashing of the Madhav Gadgil Committee recommendations on preserving the forests of the Western Ghats is an example of how states have strong reasons to prioritize development over preserving forests. The unenthusiastic formulation of State Action Plans illustrates their general apathy towards afforestation and the larger issue of climate change.

The Fourteenth Finance Commission has assigned a 7.5% weight for forest cover in the new devolution index, to compensate states for their opportunity costs for maintaining forest cover as a part of a national carbon sink. It could be thought of as a payment by the industrial states to the states with dense forest cover. This is the right approach since the international commitment on a bigger carbon sink cannot be met unless the states have strong incentives to protect their forest cover.

Trusting the states with a greater percentage of the tax pool confirms to our federal tradition and shows the centre’s confidence in the states to make the right choice. But it should by no means end here.

A one-solution-fits-all remedy may not be the right way to nurture our forests. States and local bodies should be included at the planning and execution level to find the right solution for the right region. And states on their part must reciprocate by being more active in contributing to the national climate change goal.

Can states play a role in achieving climate change goals? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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