Four years after signing Paris pact, India unclear on its forestry target

Topics Paris agreement

The Forest Survey of India drew different scenarios for what would be India’s ask depending on how the government clarifies the fine print of its commitments under the Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2015 Photo: Reuters
How much forest cover will India have to grow between 2020-2030 for the country to meet its emission reduction targets under the Paris Agreement?  Nearly four years after it submitted its targets under the global compact on climate change to the UN, the government has realised it is yet not sure of the answer. The reason: One of the targets it took on – to create an ‘additional’ carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through ‘additional´ forest and tree cover by 2030 - lacks definitional clarity.

The difference between choosing a relatively liberal interpretation of the target over a very conservative one would lead to additional investments by the government of Rs 1.36 trillion (at current prices), spread over a decade.

The conservative interpretation would lead to greening of 12.73 million additional hectares over 2020-2030. This could be done without any additional effort or policy change on part of the government. The relatively liberal interpretation, on the other hand, would require the greening of 24.69 million hectares of land (4.5 per cent of the country’s geographical area) over the same period  and require substantial additional effort starting 2020.

These projections of how the interpretation of India’s climate targets could have dramatic consequences for India’s forest cover, fiscal burden and policy challenge, have been conveyed by government’s apex forestry research body, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to the Union environment, forests and climate change ministry, in a report. Business Standard reviewed the report of the FSI capturing these numbers and warning the government that “It is important to have clarity on the baseline year and correct interpretation …the ministry should issue clarification on these two critical questions without which strategy for achieving the target cannot be developed”.

It has added, that if the government makes a relatively liberal interpretation of its Paris Agreement forestry target, “concerted programmes of forest restoration and tree planting on all available lands will have to be launched from 2020.”

Despite repeated reminders, the environment, forests and climate change ministry did not respond to specific queries over how it had decided to interpret the target to grow ‘additional’ forests under the Paris Agreement and how it had forgotten to do this exercise at the time of submitting the targets to the UN in 2015.

Business Standard had earlier reported how the UN climate body had also questioned India’s underlying forest cover data. The government was found to repeatedly revise its forest cover data for the same year and was unable to completely satisfy the UN about the transparency of its methodology. The government had denied any issues with its data and claimed the revisions were consistent and methodically done.

There are two critical questions that the government would have to decide upon to clarify what India’s Paris Agreement target for forestry really means. It would have to decide what is the base year from which it calculates this additional target of adding to the forest cover. Then, it has to decide if the forest cover to be added is in addition to the ‘business as usual’ growth in forest cover that India would anyway see due to existing policies between 2020-2030.

The FSI experts drew different scenarios for what would be India’s ask depending on how the government now clarifies the fine print of its commitments under the Paris Agreement. For each of this scenarios, the FSI took a conservative base-year of 2005 to make the calculations. This, is the year that the government has used also as a base year to make its other commitment under the Paris Agreement on reducing the energy intensity of its economy.

Taking 2005 as a base year, FSI drew one scenario on the conservative interpretation that all the government means by its Paris Agreement target is to go along with business as usual targets and see what additional forest cover might be required to meet its target.

The other scenario it drew was also using 2005 as a base year but presuming the government means to look at how forest cover would have grown without additional effort between 2020-2030 and then intend to green cover over and above that which leads to sequestering of additional 2.5-3 billion tonnes of emissions.

It calculated the costs for these scenarios based on existing rates of plantation efforts undertaken by the government. The choice of a conservative baseline year at 2005 itself restricted the ambition and effort projected to meet India’s target.

Taking 2020 as a base year – from which the Paris Agreement comes into operation - would have led to need for investments at another order of magnitude. But internationally, all countries have used convenient and conservative base years when committing by what percentage they would reduce their emissions or improve their forest covers under the Paris Agreement.

“It is very important for the country to carefully interpret its contribution under Paris Agreement and clarify its underlying assumptions. Yes, we could have ideally done this at the outset. We still have time. But, we must remember, under Paris Agreement, for each successive period there is this commitment to not backslide on our commitments. There is merit in having achievable targets which over time help build confidence that Paris Agreement can deliver,” said an official who played a role in setting India’s targets under Paris Agreement in 2015.

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