Opinion: India’s climate plan cannot work without protecting and enhancing forests

India’s climate goals depend on forests to absorb carbon – but questionable data, deforestation and a lack of ambition are hampering their potential
<p>A deforested hillside on the India-Myanmar border in Nagaland (Image: Lucy Calder / Alamy)</p>

A deforested hillside on the India-Myanmar border in Nagaland (Image: Lucy Calder / Alamy)

In August 2022, India announced two enhanced climate pledges within an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – the commitments each country submits under the Paris Climate Agreement. In its new NDC, India pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030, and to get 50% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel-based sources by 2030. In its first NDC, in 2015, these figures were 33-35% and 40% respectively. These updated targets came months after the 2021 Glasgow climate summit, COP26, at which prime minister Narendra Modi declared that India would reach net-zero emissions by 2070.

But the 2022 update said nothing new about the third goal set in the 2015 document: “to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.” Nor did India sign the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, in which world leaders committed to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

Research indicates that terrestrial carbon sinks in the form of trees are a relatively low-cost way to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas causing climate change – as a complement to reducing use of fossil fuels. Forests, mangroves, wetlands, peatlands and grasslands are all powerful carbon sinks that can absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Increasing these natural carbon sinks, therefore, seems an obvious and economical choice to help advance India’s ‘net zero’ goal and mitigate climate change and its impacts, all while providing rural employment, safeguarding the rights of forest-dependent communities, and improving soil, air, and water quality.

India far from achieving forest cover target

But in practice, not only has India failed to raise its target for forest cover, it is not on track to reach the target set in 2015. According to Global Forest Watch, India lost 371,000 hectares of primary forest cover and 2.07 million hectares of tree cover between 2002 and 2021.

India’s National Forest Policy, 1988, set a goal for forest and trees to cover one third of the country’s geographical area. This figure stands at around 24% now – and a significant percentage of the area officially classified as forest is actually degraded of much of its tree cover.

Very dense forestModerately dense forestTotal forest cover
201999, 278308,472712,249
Source: India State of the Forests Reports

In this context, the goal of planting more trees to enhance India’s carbon sink has been widely debated and questioned over its feasibility and scientific basis, largely relating to a lack of clarity around a baseline year for forest cover, and counting methodology. Even if we set these debates aside and evaluate progress towards the goal itself, the results are unsatisfactory. India’s Third Biennial Update Report submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2021 reveals that India planted trees and enhanced forest lands across 112,422 hectares in the period 2015-20, against its target of 142,684 hectares.

Questions over India’s true forest cover

According to government data, forest cover in India is increasing. India’s State of Forests Report (ISFR) 2021 says that forest cover stands at 21.71% of the country’s geographical area, versus 21.67% in 2019, while total tree cover amounts to 24.62%, versus 24.56% in 2019. The report also states that the quality of forests has changed significantly, with a reduction in ‘very dense forest’ and an increase in ‘moderately dense forest’, raising serious concerns around existing forests’ carbon sequestration capabilities.

Over the last two decades, the ISFRs have shown an increase in forest and tree cover year after year, but this data has been met with scepticism, both globally and domestically. A UN expert panel questioned India’s lack of transparency and clarity on methodology when it shared data on forest cover for its Forest Reference Level in 2018 (an estimate of emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation). India later revised the data, but doubts remained.

Within the country, MD Madhusudan, co-founder of non-profit the Nature Conservation Foundation, has pointed out discrepancies in ISFR data and the conclusions drawn from it. Another expert, Prudhviraj Rupavath of Land Conflict Watch, said in his analysis of the 2021 ISFR: “Between 2019 and 2021, the quality of India’s forests deteriorated across 15,183 square kilometres as forests were either chopped down or thinned out.” The report has been criticised for seemingly counting tea gardens, coconut plantations, built-up areas, and even desert scrub as forests. India’s actual forest cover may therefore be significantly less than 24%, effectively pushing the carbon sink goal further away.

Forests under pressure

Urbanisation, commodity-driven deforestation, forest fires and infrastructure projects all contribute to India’s loss of forest cover. Since 2015, the government has rejected fewer than 1% of proposals to divert forests for other purposes. Meanwhile in 2020, the National Board for Wildlife authorised the diversion of about 1,792 hectares of ecologically sensitive areas or protected land for 48 road and railway projects.

The loss of tree and forest cover is not only counter to India’s climate sink goals – it is also a major source of emissions. Global Forest Watch estimates that loss of tree cover in India has released greenhouse gases to the tune of about 1.01 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent between 2001 and 2021.

Look to degraded forest, mangroves and peatlands

A 2019 technical report by the Forest Survey of India on strategies for achieving the carbon sink goal advocates for restoration of forests that have been impaired in the last 15-20 years, as they present the greatest potential for achieving the target. The report claims that restoration of impaired and open forests alone could contribute 60% of the carbon sink target to be achieved by 2030.

Did you know…

Forests support 80% of India’s terrestrial biodiversity, and more than 300 million people depend on them for survival

Aside from forests, mangroves and peatlands are important carbon sinks. Mangroves – which are treated separately from other forests in ISFRs and so not included in statistics on forest cover – hold more carbon per hectare than rainforests. They are also essential to mitigate the impact of disasters such as floods, cyclones, erosion and sea level rise. While the 2021 ISFR notes a slight net increase in mangrove cover since 2019, India’s mangroves face a range of threats from forest clearance to rising sea levels. 

Peatlands are the largest naturally occurring carbon stores, sequestering more carbon worldwide than all other types of vegetation combined. Yet data on peatland cover in India is scant, as they are not systematically counted – creating a risk that their carbon sink potential may be overlooked. Whatever the number, protecting peatlands would help India to meet its net zero goal.

The way forward

Climate mitigation strategies should not be based on technology alone. Communities and ecosystems are at the centre of climate mitigation – and suffer the consequences of inaction. Forests, mangroves, peatlands, and the ecosystem services provided by them offer a long-term, viable, and cost-effective way for India to achieve its climate goals while benefitting biodiversity, local communities and the economy.

India’s policies – and crucially, the implementation of these policies – need to be in sync to achieve climate targets and attain climate justice. It is time for India to broaden the scope of its carbon sink goal to include mangroves and peatlands, and to raise its carbon sequestration target. India’s actions and inactions, particularly relating to shared and transboundary ecosystems, will have a domino effect on the rest of South Asia. India must decide how it wants to lead the way.