At the Katowice Climate Change Conference in December, Indian negotiators fought for firm financial commitments to the global climate kitty from historical emitters. India has committed to achieving its goals under the Paris Agreement. To this end, the government is propagating expanding the country’s green cover to trap more carbon. But it appears to have fallen prey to a narrow meaning of forests – planting trees. This explains why it’s still to give the real protectors of natural forests – local and indigenous communities – control over them.

The humanity emits 30-40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. At this rate, the earth will continue heating up unsustainably. In around 12 years, for one, this will result in twice as many people facing water scarcity as do today. A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which became a bone of contention at Katowice warns that we must limit the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to stave off impending disaster. To do this, we must cut net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions by 45% over the 2010 level by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. In fact, the world has delayed real climate action for so long that only reducing emissions to zero won’t be enough. We must remove some carbon dioxide from the air as well. However, as the IPCC report points out, the handful of “negative emissions” technologies we have to do so are unproven, and some may even carry significant risks for sustainable development. This means we do not have an option but to employ forests, oceans and soil as the carbon sink.

Forests, not plantations

Forests already absorb a third of the world’s fossil fuel emissions. But they are severely stressed and degrading. The irony is deforestation and forest degradation account for over 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. To limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, the world must sequester and store an average of eight gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Preserving our natural forests is crucial to achieving this.

Scaling down the definition of a forest to mean a plantation will not help. First, because plantations need vast swathes of land that we don’t have. Second, forests play multiple roles unlike plantations, which are often a commercial monoculture, that is, containing a single tree species.

Some studies have indicated that we simply cannot grow enough trees to capture the amount of carbon dioxide necessary for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. We would have to cover the whole of contiguous United States with trees just to capture 10% of the carbon dioxide that the world emits annually. According to the New York Declaration on Forests, unveiled in 2014, we will need land – voluntarily pledged for restoration – greater in size than India to halve deforestation by 2020 and tide over the loss of natural forests by 2030.

Restoration of forests should mean rejuvenation of local biodiversity; rich natural forests, not merely plantations. Often, as we have seen in India and elsewhere, the climate change scare leads to plantations, most often a monoculture of alien species that may have some offset value but cause several woes. They may suck up more water than natural forests, which help conserve more water, and provide fewer benefits to local communities that depend on forests for food, medicine and other produce. Forestry plantations, including those for carbon sequestration, have also led to land grab and dispossession of local communities and indigenous peoples across the world, and even conflict. In India, for example, Land Conflict Watch has documented 51 cases of conflict arising from forestry plantations, affecting over 58,000 people. This in a country where indigenous communities have been the best guardians of forests, having employed scientific methods of conservation long before modern forest science emerged.

Indeed, thousands of people across India continue to protect natural forests. In Odisha, for example, over 10,000 communities have been tending to state-owned forests, often through voluntary labour, and have a deep understanding of and commitment to conservation. The country’s numerous sacred groves are a living testimony to the traditional conservation ethics of indigenous communities and forest dwellers.

Seeking better solutions

Though the Katowice conference did not gather the courage to welcome the IPCC’s report on limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Indian government has already recognised it. India’s push for renewable energy has been acclaimed the world over, including by the agencies rating climate policy actions towards achieving the Paris Agreement goals.

However, India’s actions regarding negative emissions are not as robust as they should be, as is evident from the Draft Forest Policy of 2018. It could have been more progressive than the Forest Policy of 1998, which it intends to replace, by recognising the role of local and indigenous communities in conserving vast stretches of natural biodiversity-rich forests. The 1988 policy marked a historic shift in the country’s forest governance, recognising the primacy of the ecological value of forests and that Adivasis and other forest dwellers have the first right to them. It was followed by the emancipatory Forest Rights Act of 2006, which recognised the legal rights of Adivasis and other forest dwellers to their forests. Unfortunately, the 2018 policy rolls back these gains. It does recognise the challenges of climate change but its prescriptions have invited criticism for granting more power to the forest bureaucracy, excluding local communities from forest governance and promoting private sector involvement through monoculture plantations.

As the draft policy is finalised, India should look to promote inclusive natural forestry. The IPCC report recommends balancing land use between sustainable agriculture, bioenergy production and carbon storage. Conserving natural forests and ensuring local and indigenous communities have the first right to them will help achieve this objective. For it will not only preserve and promote natural carbon sinks and enhance availability of water but also help deliver social justice and equity. And “social justice and equity”, as the report points out, “are core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways that aim to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.

Ranjan K Panda is convenor of the Water Initiatives and the Combat Climate Change Network, India.