New Delhi (AFP) Sept 2, 2009
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.
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-government organisation (NGO) that contributed to the recently released State of the Environment report.
Forests currently cover 21 percent of India's geographic area and absorb around 11 percent 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.
But decades of "slash and burn" farming practices and development projects have reduced the capacity of forests to offset emissions and replenishing once abundant woodland will be time-consuming and difficult to achieve.
"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," he added.
Deforestation for commercial reasons is contained by a state fund that requires developers to pay to use forests, meaning India lost just 728 square kilometres (281 square miles) of forests between 2003 and 2005, according to government figures.
However, the government has no control over locals who use woodland for growing crops and trees for fuel, said Kumar.
"They are literally helpless due to extreme population pressures," he said.
Thick forests in northeastern and central states have especially suffered from local use, as villagers frequently cut down woodland and then abandon their plots after two to three years of crop growth.
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, the controlled growth and management of trees.
Just under two percent of Indian forests are high-density, meaning they have the best potential for capturing carbon emissions, while ten percent falls under the medium density category, according to the government.
Nine percent is totally degraded and therefore useless for absorbing emissions.
A total of 2.5 billion dollars 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 because replanted woodland is a poor store of carbon compared to matured trees.
"If you clear a forest and then you plant a few trees, it won't compensate. It's a very time consuming process," said T.R. Manoharan, a senior coordinator at the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in New Delhi.
India currently produces around five percent of the world's global carbon emissions, at a rate of just over one tonne per capita -- lower than 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 environment minister 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 ten years that all our forest cover is high density or medium density."
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