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‘Harnessing the Power of India’s Forests for Climate Change Mitigation’

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  • Published
    16th Nov, 2020

Forests help mitigate the impacts of climate change, provide economic benefits for the country, and meet specific facets of India’s sustainable development goals.


Forests help mitigate the impacts of climate change, provide economic benefits for the country, and meet specific facets of India’s sustainable development goals.

It is essential, therefore, to revisit India’s forest governance and evaluate the country’s efforts at forest restoration and conservation.


  • India’s first comprehensive climate analysis report, ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian region’, highlights the role of forests as effective mechanisms to mitigate climate change impacts, provide economic benefits for the country, and meet several of India’s sustainable development goals.
  • It is essential, therefore, to revisit India’s forest governance and evaluate efforts at forest restoration and conservation. 
  • Over the past two decades, India has witnessed an ever-increasing rate of deforestation and unsustainable exploitation of forest resources, leading to overall degradation at an alarming rate.


What is the state of India’s Forests?

  • India is now ranked 3rd in the world for annual net gain in terms of forest area.
  • The biennial India State of Forest Report-2019 released by the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change reports that India has achieved an increase of 24.56 percent in its total forest and tree cover.
  • The government has claimed that India’s green cover has increased by 15,000 km2in the last four years.


  • Forest and tree cover: The total area of tree patches in areas both less than and more than 1 ha is then known as “forest and tree cover”.
  • Tree cover: “Tree cover” is also separately defined as “all tree patches less than 1 ha outside the recorded forest area”.
  • Trees outside forests: Further, “trees outside forests” refers to trees outside recorded forest area, regardless of the area of the tree-patch.
  • Growing stock: The other term, “growing stock”, is the volume of trees in an area of forest above a certain thickness at breast height and measured in cubic meters. The ‘growing stock’ is the basis for calculating the amount of biomass and carbon stock in forests.

Classification Scheme

  • The forest cover is broadly classified in 4 classes, namely very dense forest, moderately dense forest, open forest and mangrove. These classes are defined is below.

Very dense Forest

All Lands with tree cover (Including mangrove cover) of canopy density of 70% and above

Mod Dense forest

All lands with tree cover (Including mangrove cover) of canopy density between 40% and 70% above

Open forest

All lands with tree cover (Including mangrove cover) of canopy density between 10% and 40%


All forest lands with poor tree growth mainly of small or stunted trees having canopy density less than 10 percent

Non Forest

Any area not included in the above classes

Assessing the power of Indian forests

  • Supporting economy and livelihood: India’s forest ecosystems support the economy and livelihood of approximately 300 million tribal and local people in forest villages.
  • Habitat, food and energy supplier: Covering 80.73 mha or 24.56 percent of the geographical area of the country, forests are home to 80 percent of the terrestrial biodiversity, provide 40 percent of energy needs, and 30 percent of the fodder supply.
  • Natural stabilising agent for climate: Besides driving sustainable growth, forests act as a natural stabilising agent for the climate as they regulate carbon cycle significantly.
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration through photosynthesis is considered one of the most potent and inexpensive methods for climate change mitigation.
    • Forests are the only unique, safe and inexpensive carbon capture and storage technology that is naturally available at scale with the potential to neutralise global CO2 concentrations.

Role of forests in climate change

  • Forests have four major roles in climate change:
    • they currently contribute about one-sixth of global carbon emissions when cleared, overused or degraded
    • they react sensitively to a changing climate
    • when managed sustainably, they produce woodfuels as a benign alternative to fossil fuels
    • they have the potential to absorb about one-tenth of global carbon emissions projected for the first half of this century into their biomass, soils and products and store them - in principle in perpetuity.

Mapping deforestation

  • Unfortunately, due to the over-dependence on forests of large populations and the unsustainable exploitation of their resources, India has witnessed rapid deforestation in the last decades, leading to the degradation of over 30 percent of its land and a loss of 1.6 mha of forest cover.
  • According to government data, in the last 30 years, 14,000 km2of forests were cleared to accommodate 23,716 development and industrial projects across India.
  • Besides rapid land conversion, the harvest of an estimated 850 Mt of fodder, 100 Mt of fuel wood, and 15 Mt of timber annually beyond the sustainable limits have led to the degeneration of India’s forests.
  • At the same time, however, India is seeing a massive deterioration in the health of its forests, with the growing stock (GS) decreasing significantly by 586.387 million cubic meters (M cum) or 12.26 percent.
  • The reduction in GS, despite increasing forest cover, is an indicator of forest degradation.
  • Within the forests recorded officially by government authorities, 94.96 percent are prone to crop injuries, 39.94 percent has inadequate regeneration, and 5.05 percent has no regeneration.
  • Forest degradation undermines the ability of forests to act as carbon sinks.

Impact of deforestation

  • Reducing productivity of ecosystem: Deforestation and loss of tree density of forests decreases the carbon assimilation capacity and reduces the forest soil’s organic carbon, thereby affecting the productivity of the ecosystem to act as a carbon storage.
    • Therefore, the larger the green cover of the forest and the older and healthier the trees are, the better is its capacity to sequester carbon.
    • The capacity of a very dense forest is naturally highest, followed by the moderately dense, and the open forests.
    • Dense tropical forests that are rich in biodiversity have the greatest potential to absorb the highest amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
  • Increase in carbon emissions: Continuous, unchecked deforestation and forest degradation has resulted in significant reduction (12.6 percent) in the growing forest stocks and caused nearly 172 tonnes of carbon emissions as per World Resources Institute (WRI) over the last two decades.
  • Economic loss: Furthermore, for a highly resource-dependent country such as India, any severe degradation of forests would have far-reaching ramifications for the economy, food and water security, and climate solutions.
    • According to a study by TERI (The Energy and Resource Institute), the degradation of India’s forests is depriving the country of 1.4 percent of its GDP annually.

What initiatives are taken by India?

  • At the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP, 2015), India, under the Bonn Challengecommitted to the goal of restoring 13 million hectares (mha) of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and an additional 8 mha by 2030. 
  • Moreover, in its pledge to reduce the emission intensity of its GDP by 33-35 percent by 2030 (from 2005 levels) through mitigation efforts across various sectors, India envisions to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3.0 billion tonnes (Bt) of CO2eq through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
  • The Indian government is pursuing afforestation and reforestation through policies and programmes such as
    • the National Mission on Green India
    • the National Afforestation Programme
    • compensatory afforestation
    • plantation drives across States

International treaties to protect forests

  • United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF): UNFF was established in 2000. In May 2006 it adopted four objectives:
    • Reverse the loss of forest cover worldwide through sustainable forest management;
    • Enhance forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits;
    • Increase significantly the area of sustainably managed forests; and
    • Reverse the decline in official development assistance for sustainable forest management and mobilise significantly increased new and additional financial resources from all sources for the implementation of sustainable forest management.
  • Convention on Biological Diversity: Since deforestation is one of the main causes of species loss, in 1998 the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity endorsed a work programme for forest biological diversity. 2002 saw the adoption of an expanded programme of work on forest biological diversity.
  • UNCCD: The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), entered into force in 1996. It has helped bring about a situation in which most countries have now established clear rules for combating desertification.
  • REDD+: REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is based on the idea of financially rewarding a country’s government and its population when they can demonstrate that they have avoided deforestation. REDD+ marked a further extension of this approach.
    • As well as forest protection, this approach now also includes other measures that support the role of the forest as a carbon sink, such as improved forest management and targeted reforestation.
  • Bonn Challenge: In 2011, the world’s largest forest and landscape restoration initiative was launched in Bonn. The "Bonn Challenge" aims to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030. It is estimated that by reforesting this land it will be possible to absorb around one gigaton of carbon dioxide.
  • 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: In 2015, the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
    • Goal 15 includes forest protection. Specifically, it aims to halt deforestation worldwide by 2020 and ensure that all forests are managed sustainably.
    • Goal 6 also underlines the importance of forests for water supply.
    • Goal 13: Although forests are not mentioned explicitly in this context they also play a major role in Goal 13, which deals with climate change.

What about funding for the forests?

  • In the Union Budget 2020-21, the overall allocation for the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has increased to ? 31000 million for 2020-21 from ? 2,6579.4 million in the revised estimate of 2019-20, a significant portion of which is expected to be channelled to the integrated development of forest ecology.
  • Furthermore, in October 2019, the MoEFCC transferred ? 47,436 crore under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) to 27 States for their afforestation efforts.

A Roadmap for Forest Regeneration

  • Redefining ‘forests’: An important element of a sound roadmap for forest regeneration is a redefinition of what is considered a ‘forest’. The focus should shift to the measurement of the relative density of a ‘thriving forest’ or an ‘ecosystem’
  • Updating forestry policies: The National Forest Policy of 1952 and 1988, as well as existing forest regulations, have become ineffective in protecting and conserving forest resources. A new forest policy, therefore, is vital in order to provide an overarching framework and direction for the management and regulation of forests; such new policy would consider current changes in forests due to pressing issues such as climate change and pollution.

National Forest Policy

  • The first National Forest Policy in independent India came into effect in 1952.
  • Thereafter, in 1988, a new version of the NFP came into being. The latest version has been in the offing for nearly four years now but a final version is yet to be made public.
  • Nearly three and a half years ago, in June 2016, the Environment Ministry had unveiled a draft NFP but when it came under fire for not being enough to protect the then-existing forest regulations, the ministry had backtracked on it, calling it just a “study”.
  • Subsequently, in 2018, the central government officially unveiled the draft of the NFP.
  • The draft was then revised in 2019 as well but since then there has been no news about the final version of the NFP.
  • Effective institutional and monitoring mechanism: A successful forest programme will depend on creating strict institutional mechanisms for the effective utilisation and monitoring of funds.
  • Empowering local communities: For a forest landscape as diverse and densely populated as India’s, the agency of local communities in operational decision-making and forest governance is essential. The participation of local communities must work synonymously with the coordination of impartial and credible processes to operationalise sustainable use and conservation strategies. 


India’s forest sector has a huge potential to mitigate climate change by achieving an additional 3 billion tonnes of carbon sequestration by 2030. However, achieving this would require serious efforts towards conservation, restoration and regeneration of the country’s forests. Given the critical state of India’s forests, the government must demonstrate a sense of urgency in proper planning its afforestation programme and do serious implementation on the ground.


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