Author : Aparna Roy

Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Jun 04, 2024

Adopting effective forest management strategies will provide a sustainable and cost-effective solution, significantly advancing India's net-zero emissions goal and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Forests for Future: Achieving India’s net-zero goals

This article is a part of the essay series: Not the End of the World: World Environment Day 2024


As India approaches the formation of a new government, there is much to celebrate on this World Environment Day. Political parties have pledged to work towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2070, addressing crucial environmental and climate change issues. To meet these goals, India is undergoing a significant renewable energy transition, aiming to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45 percent by 2030 and derive 50 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by the same year.

Despite these ambitious targets, India, as one of the fastest-growing developing countries, will continue to rely on conventional fossil fuels such as coal. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation's Energy Statistics 2024 report highlighted that in FY23, coal-generated energy constituted about 77.01 percent of the total energy generation, with coal-fired power expected to meet 68 percent of the demand by 2026. Therefore, to accelerate its path towards the net-zero target by 2070, India must pursue diverse alternative solutions.

India, as one of the fastest-growing developing countries, will continue to rely on conventional fossil fuels such as coal.

Research indicates that terrestrial carbon sinks, like forests, offer a powerful and effective method to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change. The global recognition of the need for forest conservation is reflected in the focus of the 2024 World Environment Day, which emphasises accelerating land restoration, drought resilience, and combatting desertification.

However, between 2001 and 2023, India lost 2.33 million hectares of tree cover, resulting in a 6-percent decline in tree cover and 1.20 Gt of CO2 emissions. The new government has the opportunity to correct this course and accelerate India’s progress toward a net-zero future. Meeting the climate pledge requires India to increase its tree cover by 12 percent over the next decade. How can the new government then ensure effective strategies for preservation, conservation, and restoration of its forest cover, both ecologically and socially?

First and foremost, there is an urgent need to redefine what constitutes a ‘forest’ in India. The Forest Survey of India currently uses satellite imagery and remote sensing data to define forests as any land patch with a tree canopy density of more than 10 percent and an area exceeding one hectare, regardless of land use, ownership, or tree species. However, this method fails to differentiate between plantations and natural forests. As a result, any tree cover, whether bamboo, coffee, orchards, or urban parks, is classified as ‘forests.’

Unlike plantations, native forests are intricate ecosystems featuring 30-40 different tree species, products of millions of years of evolution, and specific regional biophysical features. They serve as the most effective carbon sinks. Thus, a mere tree canopy cannot be considered a forest. Adopting a more nuanced definition will enable India to design and implement interventions that truly protect, restore, and conserve its forests.

Unlike plantations, native forests are intricate ecosystems featuring 30-40 different tree species, products of millions of years of evolution, and specific regional biophysical features.

Over the past two decades, India has experienced significant deforestation, resulting in the degradation of over 30 percent of its land and the loss of 2.33 million hectares of forest cover. This deforestation impacts more than a fifth of the country's population, who rely on forests for their livelihoods. The consequences of deforestation and land degradation are far-reaching, affecting agricultural productivity, water quality, and biodiversity, and ultimately impacting over 600 million people in India.

This has been mainly due to the rapid diversion of forestland for non-forest purposes. India during the last five years has approved diversification of over 88,903 hectares of forest land—a size more than the area of Mumbai and Kolkata put together—for non-forestry purposes, with the highest of over 19,424 hectares being for road construction, followed by 18,847 hectares for mining, 13,344 hectares for irrigation projects, 9,469 hectares for transmission lines, and 7,630 hectares for defence projects. India's Compensatory Afforestation Programme is based on the assumption that forests can be easily replaced elsewhere. Consequently, clearances are granted for projects requiring forest areas for non-forest uses by collecting monetary compensation, which is then allocated to states for ‘compensatory afforestation’ on non-forest land. Since 2015, the government has rejected fewer than 1 percent of proposals to divert forests for other purposes.

To compensate for the loss of ‘forests’, India’s afforestation programme currently focuses on large-scale monoculture plantations of non-native, commercial species like eucalyptus, acacia, and teak. These plantations lack the biodiversity, ecological value, and longevity of natural forests. They have minimal carbon sequestration capacity and often emit carbon when the wood is burned. Despite efforts, this programme has been largely ineffective, as evidenced by the decline of 1,582 sq km in moderately dense forests from the ISFR 2021 report, coupled with a 2,621 sq km increase in open forest areas.

Image 1: Loss of forest/tree cover in India

Source - https://fsi.nic.in/forest-report-2021 

India should develop a robust policy framework for forest management that curtails deforestation while enhancing ecological and biodiversity values. Utilising scientific, evidence-based methodologies with a participatory approach will help identify the most suitable tree-based interventions for specific land uses. Implementing the Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (ROAM) framework on a large scale could facilitate a thorough analysis of spatial, legal, and socioeconomic data, enabling optimal forest restoration interventions.

However, a successful forest programme will depend on establishing stringent institutional mechanisms for the effective implementation, utilisation, and monitoring of funds. In the recent past, numerous instances of CAMPA fund misuse and inadequate monitoring by states have surfaced, underscoring the need for robust oversight.

Emerging technologies offer promising solutions. For instance, the remote forest-monitoring system SmartForest developed by Treevia uses wireless electronic sensors to track the real-time growth of Brazil’s forests. The data collected by these sensors is then analyzed to inform policymaking. This system also provides various solutions, including digital asset registration systems, high-precision forest research and hazard assessments. Additionally, geo-tagging technology can serve as a valuable tool for online recording, monitoring, and preventing leakages, as well as for efficient mapping of forest landscapes.

Emerging technologies offer promising solutions. For instance, the remote forest-monitoring system SmartForest developed by Treevia uses wireless electronic sensors to track the real-time growth of Brazil’s forests.

Lastly, regenerating or afforesting lands requires the support of local communities, who can manage and oversee adaptive management practices. Recognising and formalising community knowledge systems and efforts in forest stewardship is essential. Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) systems, where local communities protect and manage naturally regenerating trees, have demonstrated significant economic and ecosystem benefits across many states. Such initiatives need to be formalised and institutionalised at scale. In India, models like the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development’s (NABARD) ‘Wadi’ project and the Foundation for Ecological Security’s re-greening of village commons project have proven effective.

Adopting effective forest management strategies will provide a sustainable and cost-effective solution, significantly advancing India's net-zero emissions goal and mitigating the impacts of climate change.


Aparna Roy is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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