Monday, June 29, 2015

21 Carbon sequestration through forestry (CDM-AR, REDD). Climate Change Strategies and Forests in India-III

Climate change mitigation and forests

In our quest to find and apply ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, forestry and forests are seen as a significant sector. The first consideration is that forests themselves are a great source of GHG emissions:  world-wide, they are supposed to be the second largest source, contributing 12-20% of GHG emissions, which of course poses a threat to world climate. But the more the carbon in the atmosphere, the faster does tree growth occur, so it is also an opportunity for mitigation, because growing trees absorb CO2 and hence can be a significant low-cost, universally applicable mitigation device.

These principles are well exemplified in our experience with the Afforestation & Reforestation (AR) component of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Afforestation and Reforestation (AR) as a route to carbon mitigation was first introduced in UNFCCC CoP-3 (1997) under the CDM. In 2005, at CoP-11, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation (RED) was introduced, and the concept later enhanced by adding forest Degradation (REDD). The basic concept of REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) is simple enough (Dilip Kumar, 2014): reducing the emissions from existing forests would entail controlling the rate of destructive clearing of forest, stopping the practice of burning vegetation to induce grass growth or replace forest with rangeland or agricultural crops; and so on. However, there is also the possibility that a sustainable utilization of wood can actually lead to greater carbon sequestration: the utilizable trees are locked up as structural timber in buildings, furniture, etc., and even more carbon can be fixed; per hectare  by encouraging the growth of a new crop of trees.

This was further expanded to REDD-Plus in the CoP-13 at Bali (2007) by adding elements of forest conservation and sustainable forest management as devices for mitigating carbon emissions, giving rise to the expectation, among developing, tropical countries, that they would be paid for the carbon sequestered in trees and forests that had been set aside in the past by sacrificing short-term benefits.   

The CDM-AR component was at one time touted as the great new mechanism for carbon sequestration, and detailed and laboriously drafted guidelines and rules were put up on the UNFCCC websites (e.g., UNFCCC, 2013). But these guidelines and procedures were so involved (in my view, they constitute some sort of documents from hell!) that very few projects were actually approved: according to an on-line article on the ForestCarbonAsia website (Chokkalingam & Vanniarachchy, 2014), by May 2011, there were only 22 registered CDM-AR projects (and 4 requesting registration), as against some 3000 CDM projects overall, mostly in energy, waste management, manufacturing, emissions, and agriculture. The main issue seems to have been that the process of developing standards and procedures for validating such projects (for instance, that it is an additionality, and will be long-lived) is complex and time consuming (which the authors have cited, rather unconvincingly, as an excusable process of learning that will help the successor scheme to get off the mark that much faster), and the same is bound to be true of the latest incarnation, REDD Plus, which introduces yet more components, like sustainable forest management, to sort out.

Apart from the intractable difficulties in actually proving that a particular afforestation or restoration project is an additionality (over and above something called the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario), and that the forest crop will be sure to last indefinitely with its locked-in carbon (and not liquidated sometime in the near future), there is the fact that the world community has been rather niggardly in providing the funds required to implement the scheme: after a lot of meetings and discussions, some 280 million USD were pledged at the CoP-19 at Warsaw in November 2013 by certain developed countries for a “results-based” REDD programme in 48 partner countries, , a miniscule amount compared to the many billions required to even secure the existing forests, let alone produce enough new trees to sequester the extra CO2 the world is going to emit as per the IPCC scenarios. The Stern review, for instance, estimated that the “opportunity cost of forest protection in 8 countries responsible for 70 per cent of emissions from land use could be around $5 billion per annum initially”, and expected to rise over time (Stern, 2007).

India is in any case probably not going to be a potential recipient of such pay-outs, and the relatively minor amounts being discussed are an obvious indication that much of the money will actually go to technical inputs like training, ‘capacity building’, consultancies, and so on. For India, it is all the more meaningless to look to such sources for its national programmes, as there is already an accumulated Compensatory Afforestation (CAMPA) fund of over 5 billion USD waiting to be utilised.

Another potential problem with relatively stable and institutionally developed states like India is that it will be difficult to find any major additionalities over and above the existing national programmes (the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario). For India in particular, there are already the eight national Climate Missions  devised under the previous government, of which the Green India Mission is one (see Prof. Ravindranath’s presentation at the FAO on-line conference, 2015). It envisages the creation of 5 million hectare (mha) new growth and improvement of 5 mha of existing forest, based on a ‘landscape approach’, over a period of 10 years, which will sequester carbon, along with a number of ‘co-benefits’ in the form of strengthening community participation, biodiversity conservation, and income augmentation. India also has a long-established forest service that administers the forest and wildlife areas (which cover some 65 mha out of the 300 mha of the area reported upon in the country), and many progressively (social environmentalists would say, regressively!) stringent protective laws like the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), Forest Conservation Act (1980), Environmental Protection Act (1986), National Forest Policy (1988), National Environment Policy (2006), Forest Rights Act (2006), etc., along with a strong and active judiciary (and now the National Green Tribunal), which have succeeded in at least stabilizing, and even modestly increasing, the forest cover and wildlife habitats in recent decades (Dilip Kumar, 2014c).

At the same time, there have been strenuous efforts to empower communities by decentralization of political and administrative roles through the Panchayati Raj institutions, and give them legal entitlements on a broad range of issues, to employment, food, education, and of course the individual and community forest rights of traditional forest dwellers (Forest Rights Act, 2006). The forest department itself, although a rule-bound and rather authoritarian force of uniformed officers, that has traditionally seen its main role as protecting the forests from the people living around it, has developed mechanisms to work with the communities through the Joint Forest management Committees (JFMCs). These measures appear to have gone a long way in meeting the global objectives agreed at the UN Forum of Forests (UNFF), 2006, such as reversing loss of forest cover, enhancing economic, social and environmental benefits, and increasing the area under protection and sustainable forest management (SFM).
Any REDD scheme in India would therefore be but a minor augmentation over and above these targets and instruments, and is likely to be nothing more than a token gesture of support to the international community and perhaps a display piece for the private sector. Indeed, according to the Second National Communication (NATCOM) of the environment ministry (Government of India, 2012), there would seem to be little scope for REDD-type interventions in India, because forests are reported to be contributing very little to GHGs: just as an illustration, for 2007, of the total country levels of CO2 emissions (14,76,357 Gg, or million tonnes) and removals (2,75,358 Gg), forest contributed only 87,840 Gg to emissions and 67,800 Gg to removals, leaving a minuscule net addition, nowhere near the 20% contribution worldwide of GHG from forest degradation which is the basic assumption of the REDD strategy.

In any case, as already suggested by this author (Dilip Kumar, 2014), it does not appear that India is being viewed as a major destination for aid in the sphere of REDD or REDD Plus; indeed, as a major contributor to the carbon emissions as well as a major player in the climate mitigation and adaptation sphere (including afforestation and landscape restoration), India may have to get used to thinking and acting as a provider, rather than a recipient, of aid.

Sustainable development as a self-imposed precaution

Even though we may not agree to curb our carbon emissions at present levels at the urging of the developed countries, it is still to be recognized that each developing country should undertake conservation and sustainable utilisation of its natural resources as a matter of common sense and abundant precaution in its own long term interests, and not necessarily because it feels under pressure in the world climate conferences.

In the short term, as already suggested, we should secure and sequester those natural habitats and biodiversity centres that are still left intact, notwithstanding the criticism of our over-sensitive ecologists to the fact that these constitute ‘islands’ of biodiversity (the complaint made by Gadgil in his report on the Western Ghats, see Dilip Kumar, 2014b). In the longer term, we need to have a clear pathway to higher income (GDP, growth) and improved quality of life of the mass of people (distribution, development). In our own interest, quite apart from the interests of controlling global GHG emissions, we need to become steadily more carbon-efficient, fuel-efficient, and careful about how we use (or abuse) the environment and natural resources.

The philosopher Pascal is supposed to have said that even if we didn’t believe there was a God, just in case we were mistaken it wouldn’t hurt to act as if He existed. In a similar spirit, whether one is an environmental warrior (like the IPCC), or a reformed skeptic (like Lomborg), we will have to probably agree with the IPCC finding that “Warming of the climate system is unequivoval, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen” (IPCC, 2014c, SPM 1.1, p.2, emphasis in original). Accordingly, it is advisable that we anticipate the possible climate change effects of the future, and start building up resilience in critical sectors. Indeed, we need not even go so far into the future of the climate change scenario: we just have to build up resilience to the current environmental factors and intermittent disasters, e.g. by proper water and soil (nutrients) management, regulating land use, controlling pollution, building defences against floods, droughts, and other climate-related hazards, diversifying rural occupations, increasing mobility, improving skills, minimizing losses, developing processing and storage facilities, developing different sectors of the economy, benefiting from the global trade and information network, moving increasingly to renewable energy and so on.

While gross carbon use (and GHG emissions) will inevitably be increasing many-fold given the growth targets of energy, fuels, infrastructure, and other sectors, the country would have to take up these sustainability measures in any case to be viable even in the current situation. These measures would automatically contribute to better carbon management in the long term, and as our people move to slightly higher levels of income, reduced uncertainty and environmental hazards, lower levels of poverty, lower birth rates, it is expected that better management of the environment and natural resources would follow.  In doing this, we need to ensure that there is a more equitable sharing of the benefits of development with the presently less well-off, especially identifiable disempowered minority groups (the socially and economically less endowed), and regional pockets of low performance. In order to make wise choices that do not result in more poverty in the name of development, we may have to devise and apply more sensible measures of well-being, rather than blindly following the high-consumption paths of the developed world; therein lies the governance challenge.

(This article series is based on my paper prepared for the “International Conference on Climate Change and Social-Ecological-Economic Interface-Building”, May 20-21, 2015, organized by the Centre for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources (CEENR), Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru-560072, India. Uploaded at:

(On REDD-Plus and forestry in climate change mitigation, see my paper in the EPW May 24, 2014, p.22-25, available at:

PDF of the whole paper is here:


Climate change, green-house gases, development strategy, natural resources, forest, carbon sequestration, IPCC, REDD


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