Managing forests for carbon

Forests have occupied the central space in climate change negotiations owing to their important role as a sink and source of greenhouse gases (GHG). Deforestation and forest degradation contribute around one-fifth of the total GHGs, making it one of the single largest sources. It has led to the development of various forest-related climate mitigation mechanisms such as the forestry clean development mechanism (CDM) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries (REDD+). Proponents argue that these mechanisms will promote not only the enhancement and better management of forests but will also provide co-benefits of biodiversity and improved livelihoods for local people.

However, the experience of forestry CDM projects has been far from satisfactory. These projects are considered long, costly, complex and uncertain. India is the single largest host of forestry CDM projects. It has nine out of a total 55 projects registered worldwide. A primary survey of four projects from India by the author suggests that most of these projects are promoting fast-growing and exotic species like eucalyptus and poplar. Three out of the four projects are nowhere close to meeting their carbon commitments. Most importantly, most of them have adversely affected local livelihoods owing to an absence of or low returns. Similar experiences have been predominantly reported from other projects worldwide. In short, these projects largely fail to achieve their stated objectives of climate mitigation and sustainable development.

After the forestry CDM bubble burst, much of its failures had been attributed to technical and design issues. A new mechanism, which is more comprehensive and large in scale has been designed in the form of REDD+. REDD+ aims to incentivise developing countries not only for reducing their deforestation and degradation but also managing their forests sustainably. It is ambitious in scale and aims to monitor results at the national level. REDD+ is expected to be financed through funds from developed countries in the preparatory phase but through markets during implementation.

Although REDD+ is yet to become operational under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), billions of dollars worth of pilot activities have been started across the world without fully understanding their impacts. Brazil and Indonesia are the hotspots of such activities owing to their large rates of deforestation and hence, a huge potential for generating carbon credits.

Early evidence from REDD+ projects

There are more than 300 REDD+ pilot activities being implemented across the world but there is very limited empirical evidence on the issues and impacts of these projects. But a recent comprehensive study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) covering 23 projects across six countries sheds light on various issues related to finance, scale, tenure and livelihood impacts of projects.

Reliable and sufficient financial support is a challenge for REDD+ projects. It has been reported that $8.7 billion were committed between 2006 to 2010 to get these projects off the ground. But low carbon prices coupled with unreliable donor finance have made the future of these projects uncertain. Some of these projects have aligned to ongoing developmental activities and have changed their nature.

Tenure or issues related to secure rights over land and resources remain the "paramount challenges" for these projects. In two-third of the study sites, local people are facing challenges of excluding external users owing to a complex set of legal and social issues. Hence, REDD+ cannot be effectively implemented at theses sites. The study also indicates huge gaps in monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) capabilities across countries especially at sub-national levels where REDD+ projects are being implemented. Monitoring small scale deforestation and forest degradation is especially difficult as it requires high-end technical expertise and resources, which are presently lacking in most of the cases.

This study indicates only 23 per cent and 34 per cent of the participating households are aware of the REDD+ concept and ongoing projects respectively. This is problematic for effective participation. However, the most striking findings are in the area of impact on the livelihoods of small farmers. The study suggests that at more than 80 per cent of the sites where household surveys were taken, small farmers face the risk of losing their livelihoods because of the restriction on agricultural activities in the project areas. This goes against the very idea of benefitting local people through these projects.

Implications for India

In view of the available evidence, implications of carbon forestry projects for India can be analysed.

The government of India has been actively involved in the designing of policy for carbon forestry projects at international and national levels. It contributed to the policy debates at the UNFCCC to take REDD to REDD+ thereby underlining the significance of conservation and sustainable forest management in the mechanism. It has drafted a reference document and has established a cell in the ministry of environment, forests and climate change to promote REDD+ activities in the country. It has initiated the National Mission for a Green India (or Green India Mission) under its National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008, which is a REDD+ like initiative that aims to restore ten million hectares of forest and non-forest areas in the country through natural regeneration and plantation activities over ten years with a budget of $40 billion. The government of India is positioning itself to claim REDD+ benefits under the new climate regime.

India has stabilised and marginally increased its forest cover to 69 million hectares over a decade-and-a-half but the quality of forests remains a major issue. More than 40 per cent of the forests in the country are degraded. If India adopts REDD+ commitments, it will have to show verifiable progress in the reduction of GHGs through addressing the issue of forest degradation, which is often linked to livelihood needs of local people related to fodder, fuelwood and small timber. It can affect the subsistence of more than 300 million forest-dependent people across the country.

There are strong concerns that in a zeal to show an increased carbon stock, state forest departments might adopt a conservation approach to forest management with centralisation of decision making powers. It can undo the decentralisation space created through various community-based initiatives in the country. Various civil society organisations and forest workers' unions argue that carbon forestry mechanisms like the Green India Mission and REDD+ can become a tool to discard people’s rights under ongoing Forest Rights Act of 2006, which has been enacted after a long struggle. It has been reported that forests are being diverted for developmental projects and are being brought under afforestation and conservation programmes without recognition of the rights under the Act. Carbon forestry projects can further abet this trend.

Finally, these projects could have an adverse impact on the biodiversity of forests. As the experience from CDM projects suggest, despite the stated objectives of protecting and enhancing biodiversity, these projects promote fast-growing species owing to a carbon-centric approach, which can have serious implications for a biodiversity-rich country like India.