Forests are considered the best solutions for sequestering carbon and also acts as a stabilising force for the climate by regulating ecosystems, protect biodiversity, maintain the carbon cycle and support livelihood. Acting two-fold in climate change, forests act as a cause and also a solution for greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation and forest degradation contribute to nearly half of the emissions coming from the land sector accounting for 25 % of the global emissions.
Deforestation and degradation of forests is considered a serious environmental challenge and the biggest threat to our planet especially in the developing countries having the problem of poverty. Every year nearly 18.7 million hectares of forests are destructed globally for various anthropogenic considerations including developmental needs. As per one estimate, 5.7 million hectares of forest land in India have been used for non-forestry purposes since independence. While nearly 75% of forests are subjected to grazing, another 10 MHA is affected by encroachment thereby increasing the degradation of forests besides affecting their productivity and regenerative capacity. State of the World’s Forest Report 2020 estimates the loss of 420 million hectares of forest through conversion to other land uses since 1990 and the reduction of 178 million hectares of forests has decreased globally due to deforestation. The recently established origin of infectious zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 is also being linked to habitat loss due to degradation and deforestation.
The global recognition of forests as the most suitable and effective weapons to fight climate change was acknowledged during 2005 at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) followed by the creation of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) a collaborative programme of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2008. REDD programme was followed by the Bonn Challenge, launched by Germany and the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN) in 2011 for restoring 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. The Paris Climate accord 2015 gave a big boost to forests when all countries’ committed to offsetting their carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use and other sources by planting or protecting forests. The recent decision of the United Nations to declare 2021-30 as the UN decade on Ecosystem Restoration and targeting nearly 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 for restoration is also a step ahead to acknowledge the importance and role of forests. . Under the Paris agreement, India has pledged to increase its forests by 95 million hectares by 2030 and committed to restoring 26 million hectares degraded land by 2030.
The most intriguing part of forests degradation is that while on one side the forest degradation and deforestation are responsible for climate change but on the other side the consequences of climate change also impair the growth and survival of existing forests and contribute to their degradation. Global warming not only makes forests difficult to adapt to but also exposes them to other disturbances like floods, droughts, wildfires and insect damage and gets further compounded by uncontrolled land-use changes, unsustainable exploitation, pollutions and fragmentation of habitats. Further, an increase of global average temperature from 1.5 to 2.5 °C is likely to cause the risk of extinction of 20 to 30% of plant and animal species. The forests also face the problem of depletion of the water table due to unsustainable extraction of water which gets aggravated by droughts and degraded conditions of the forest. Other repercussions of climate change are changes in the climatic, edaphic and environmental conditions thereby negatively affecting the survival and emergence of forests. Water scarcity not only encourages conditions to enhance the spread of fires but also decreases the resilience of groundwater-dependent ecosystems.
One of the notable approaches to address the problems of degradation and deforestation is the Nature-based Solutions( NbS) of IUCN. Defined as actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, the NBS approach addresses the societal challenges effectively and adaptively for human well-being and biodiversity benefits. Another approach to reverse deforestation and degradation is FLRM (Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism). Established by FAO in 2014, FLRM includes actions to strengthen the resilience and ecological integrity of landscapes with the participation of local communities. Current strategies and initiatives both at global and national levels are now strongly advocating these approaches to counter the challenge of degradation of forests.
Most of the initiatives to counter these challenges especially climate change have been so far limited to afforestation or tree planting being a mitigation alternative. However, a cursory evaluation of these programmes does not portray a very satisfactory picture mainly because of lack of seriousness and enabling policy and financial support with adequate provision to take care of backward and forward linkages essential for the establishment or survival of these plantations. Similar is the fate of approaches meant to counter the degradation like NbS and FLRM. In the absence of an effective policy initiative, enabling the atmosphere with the required institutional and legal framework with assured financing provisions, the action plans or policy declarations of the Countries are not able to yield considerable results. Though the mitigation measures for reducing emissions using forests are more economical than other mechanisms, one policy brief of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) estimates the cost to meet the REDD+ interventions between the US $17 and $28 billion per year to reduce global emissions from deforestation by 50 per cent for developing countries which makes it highly cost-sensitive and more challenging to put into practice.
There is no denial in the fact that degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution and other climate change-induced problems are not only environmental problems, they are also social and economic problems. Climate change and degradation being closely interlinked with poverty also contribute to making a vicious circle for the environmental crisis thereby pose a complex yet serious challenge especially for developing countries including India. This warrants formulation of integrated and inclusive solutions with strong political will having pro-poor and gender-sensitive priorities, commitment, strong policy support, enabling institutional and committed finances. Initiation and implementation of such mechanisms can only help to break the nexus between degradation and climate change for achieving effective and sustainability just environmental results. In the absence of such timely initiatives and priorities, the forests across the world will continue to face the double whammy of degradation and climate change and may further reach a stage from where their restoration and rejuvenation may become very difficult if not impossible.
(Views are personal).
This article also has been appeared in Telangana Today and can be viewed at the following link.