Forests and Carbon

  Jul 29, 2020

Forests and Carbon

Why in news?

The State of Forest Report (SFR) 2019, while showing an increase in the carbon stock trapped in Indian forests in the last two years, also shows why it is going to be an uphill task for India in meeting one of its international obligations on climate change. India, as part of its contribution to the global fight against climate change, has committed itself to creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. 

What is the relationship between forests and carbon?

Forests, by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for the process of photosynthesis, act as a natural sink of carbon. Together with oceans, forests absorb nearly half of global annual carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, the carbon currently stored in the forests exceeds all the carbon emitted in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age. An increase in the forest area is thus one of the most effective ways of reducing the emissions that accumulate in the atmosphere every year. 

How do the latest forest data translate into carbon equivalent?

The latest forest survey shows that the carbon stock in India’s forests (not including tree cover outside of forest areas) have increased from 7.08 billion tonnes in 2017, when the last such exercise had been done, to 7.124 billion tonnes now. This translates into 26.14 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent as of now.

It is estimated that India’s tree cover outside of forests would contribute another couple of billion of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

How challenging does this make it for India in meeting its target?

An assessment by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) last year had projected that, by 2030, the carbon stock in forests as well as tree cover was likely to reach 31.87 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in the business as usual scenario. An additional 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of sink, as India has promised to do, would mean taking the size of the sink close to 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Considering the rate of growth of the carbon sink in the last few years, that is quite a stiff target India has set for itself. In the last two years, the carbon sink has grown by just about 0.6%%. Even compared to 2005, the size of carbon sink has increased by barely 7.5%. To meet its NDC target, even with most optimistic estimates of carbon stock trapped in trees outside of forest areas, the sink has to grow by at least 15% to 20% over the next ten-year period.

What is the way forward?

There are two key decisions to be made in this regard — selection of the baseline year, and addition of the contribution of the agriculture sector to carbon sink.

In Glasgow meet of COPs in 2020 India can specify if it wants to contribution of the agriculture sector to carbon sink, and its choice of baseline which it did not specify in 2015 INDC commitments. These options will enable India technically achieve targets on paper.

The other or rather complementary action would be initiating a massive people’s movement in afforestation through Joint forest management.