Written by Ranjit Barthakur, President of the Balipara Foundation
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report which dubbed India one of the most climate vulnerable nations globally. Changing monsoon patterns, increasing temperatures, heatwaves, extreme weather events and rising sea levels threaten the future of the country.
Another report released in 2021 by the CEEW found that 80% of the country’s population lives in districts that are vulnerable to climate change, while older reports by the department of Science and Technology show that in India, the North Eastern states are among the most climate vulnerable.
India, meanwhile, is one of the third largest carbon emitters globally and one of the biggest, growing markets for coal. At COP26, India raised eyebrows when it pushed for a dilution of the language on coal commitments – from phasing out to phasing down.
While India’s share of historical emissions is low and its per capita emissions are still fairly low, the climate crisis is pushing the world to a tipping point. And as the world approaches this tipping point, the world is increasingly looking to big developing economies like India, to reign in emissions in order to meet the targets set under the Paris Agreement.
A tipping point approaches
In order to keep emissions below the range that will lead to the 1.5 degree temperature rise, carbon concentration in the air has to be kept below 430 ppm (parts per million). Currently, this figure stands at 415 ppm and at current rates of emissions, that means the world would cross the carbon concentration threshold in the next five years.
Even with the highest possible emissions cuts, the world would still cross this threshold – unless we remove between 100 to 1000 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.
Despite commitments made under the Paris Agreement, carbon emissions increased by 1% in 2022, hitting an all time high of 37.5 billion tonnes this year. Much of this growth comes from India’s rapidly growing economy, where increasing oil and coal consumption led to a 6% increase on its emissions.
At this rate, scientists predict the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise mark could be breached within this decade. India faces several development constraints that make a rapid net zero transition difficult.
Its 2070 net zero commitment has been lauded globally and its updated Long-Term Low Carbon Development Strategy reflects a systematic plan to transition to renewables, reduce energy efficiencies and align with net zero targets.
By 2030, its initiatives are likely to close its emissions gap by 9%. Though India has not yet committed to phasing out coal completely, it aims to phase down coal to 28% of the power share by 2030 from 52% currently.
Driving urgent action while meeting development concerns
While India cannot yet afford to rapidly transition to renewable energy because of the rapidly growing demand for power, and the supply crunch, India has an opportunity to show global leadership on climate change, through its forest landscapes.
India’s vast forests in the Western Ghats and its Eastern Himalayas – the North East – are increasingly attracting global attention in the fight for
climate change. Out of the locations chosen to pilot the 1 trillion trees initiative by the World Economic Forum, India is up there with critical ecosystems like the Sahel region in Africa.
Since 1991, India has lost over 16% of its GDP to climate change, according to the IPCC. This loss is expected to increase further as climate change hits rural communities across India hard, disrupting agriculture markets.
One of the biggest factors driving climate vulnerability across the country, is the low forest cover per capita, as per the Department of Science & Technology’s 2019 report.
The lack of forest cover limits natural resilience for rural communities: in the North East, exposed land has led to higher levels of land degradation and soil erosion due to the changing monsoon patterns with spells of intense rainfall followed by little to no rain.
One of India’s NDCs is to create an additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5–3 GtCO 2 e through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
While the country is on track to achieve this, a more ambitious target for this goal can not only help India develop carbon sinks, but also revitalize rural economies and build climate resilience. India’s 2022 push for agroforestry is an urgently needed step
in the right direction – agroforestry is more climate-resilient than monocrop cultivation, and it also sequesters a greater amount of carbon.
Supplemented by a full-scale plan for rewilding forests, this could create transformative change for its rural communities and help the country achieve its independent goal of increasing forest cover to 30% by the end of the decade.
Restoring degraded forest lands and transitioning to climate friendly cultivation practices like agroforestry in the North East, for example, could help sequester over 5 million tonnes of carbon annually.
In total, the region has over 2.3 million hectares of land that can be reforested, and a further 1.8 million hectares of agricultural land that can be rewilded through agroforestry. In total, rewilding these lands would require the seeding of 4.2 billion natural assets (trees) across the region.
Such a large-scale rewilding investment plan would create jobs for over 2 million households – mitigating the
rural jobs crisis facing the country.
The Glasgow Climate Pact’s recognition of forests and nature-based solutions in playing a role in combatting climate change has created a booming carbon market for forests.
Nature based offsets in the voluntary market currently command the highest carbon prices and the price of carbon in the EU
is now reaching 73 euros.
Tapping into this will create further economic opportunities for rural communities: opportunities that are resilient to climate change and reflect the new shape of economic opportunity globally.
The quicker India seizes this opportunity, will define its ability to build climate resilience for its people. Businesses are looking for investment opportunities in nature based solutions and India, with its vast ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots, has an opportunity to tap into a growing carbon market.
It is an opportunity to invest in creating better, sustainable jobs in rural India, enhance the economic and spending power of households and businesses and demonstrate that India is a climate leader with a holistic, visionary approach.
Ranjit Barthakur is a social entrepreneur who has pioneered the concepts of Naturenomics and Rural Futures. Under his mentorship the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Ark in residence at Wild Mahseer, has become a hub for mindful tourism in Balipara County, Assam and has been instrumental in catalysing the natural history and cultural heritage of the Brahmaputra valley in Assam.