The Sanctuary Voices Of Reason Series
In the first installment in the Sanctuary Voices of Reason series, Lord Nicholas Stern lends his expertise as a professor, economist and a leading authority on climate change to this compilation of some of the world’s biggest voices on global warming today.
Climate Change and India: Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Economics
by Lord Nicholas Stern
Action on managing climate change is urgent, but the world is dithering. One of the major reasons for delay is a poor understanding of the magnitude of the scale of the risks, and of the dangers of delay. On current plans and intentions, the world is headed for emissions that are consistent with average temperatures around three, four, five degrees Celsius, or more, above those of the mid-19th century. These temperatures are far outside the range of experience of modern civilisations and would likely transform the relation between all species and the planet, including humans. There are strong possibilities of disruptions to climate and local habitats, including the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems crucial for stable communities, which would require hundreds of millions of people to move, with risks of severe and extended conflicts, particularly in the subcontinent. Many of the great advances in development over the last few decades in health and education would likely be reversed. The risks are immense.
The alternative low-carbon, more resource-efficient path, and the transition towards it, is likely to be attractive, dynamic and full of innovation, discovery and opportunity, with key benefits over and above the reduced risks of climate change, particularly in biodiversity and ecosystems; this alternative path is far more attractive than high-carbon business-as-usual. It gives our children and grandchildren a chance not only to see something of the natural world that we have seen, but also to avoid the severe risks associated with damage to the ecosystems on which we all depend.
Forests are central to both climate and biodiversity
Forests influence weather systems and precipitation, and estimates indicate that they store more carbon than the atmosphere.1 Global deforestation adds somewhere in the region of five to six billion tonnes of CO2 each year to the atmosphere, perhaps more, and accounts for around 30 per cent of developing country emissions.2 India’s forests and trees cover over 20 per cent of its land mass, or around 80 million ha., and sequester as much as 10 per cent of India’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions; at the rate of five to ten U.S. dollars per tonne of CO2 (arguably, the appropriate price for CO2 should be much higher than this), the carbon stock locked in India’s forests is worth around U.S. dollars 120-240 billion.3 A range of processed and unprocessed products derived from forests contribute around 1.7 per cent of India’s GDP.4
Photograph by Michele Mossop.
It is not just forest area, but the health of forests that is also crucial for India. Healthy forests protect biodiversity and support ecosystems that purify the air, assist with pollination, maintain the health of rivers that deposit fertile soils, reduce soil erosion and the severity of floods and droughts. They also provide employment, food, materials and economic and social benefits for local communities. India has around 170,000 ‘forest fringe’ villages, roughly 30 per cent of India’s 600,000 or so villages. Though there are no official census figures for the number of people dependent on forests, estimates range from 275 million5 to 350-400 million.6 Forest ‘fringe villages’ are also home to a large share of India’s poorest people, around 40 per cent of those living in poverty, and a significant share of India’s tribal population.7 Whilst none of these figures can be offered with great precision it is clear that the numbers involved are very large. Forest ‘fringe village’ communities depend upon forest resources for their livelihood, including: wood for fuel, cooking and income (through selling); assortments of fruits, flowers, roots, shoots and leaves for food and medicines; materials for agricultural implements, house construction and fencing; fodder and grazing (grass and leaves) for livestock; and the collection of a range of marketable non-timber forest products. Any development path that ignores the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions is likely to lead to degradation and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services crucial for sustaining the livelihoods of villagers. This could destabilise village communities and threaten their development and poverty reduction aims.
India’s forests are also important for the world. They support a large share of the world’s biodiversity, including 12 per cent of the world’s flora and 13 per cent of the known species of birds.8 Indian forests represent one of the 12 mega-biodiversity regions of the world and India’s Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalaya are amongst the 32 biodiversity hotspots on Earth.9
Poverty and climate change
The alternative low-carbon paths recognise that managing climate change and overcoming poverty are the key challenges of this century and that if we fail on one, we fail on the other. The alternative paths can combine emission reductions (mitigation), adaptation to the climate change that is unavoidable, development and poverty reduction, and the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems. The sustainable way to fight poverty is the only one which can succeed over the medium term.
Such paths will be strongly community-based in both actions and outcomes. For example, India has made significant efforts to involve local communities in the sustainable management of forests through Joint Forest Management (JFM) initiatives. The idea of JFM is to enable poor people to maintain forest based livelihoods by utilising their indigenous knowledge to sustainably manage forests with assistance from the Government of India. Such initiatives can work only if communities collaborate and have the support of government institutions.
Photograph by Nilima Bhandarkar.
Manikpur and Padikona villages in Madhya Pradesh, and many others are examples of emerging communities that have bettered their livelihoods through sustainable forest conservation. In 1987, the forests around these villages were severely degraded with only rootstock remaining. Over several years, the forest was regenerated and protected and its density and health greatly improved. This enabled the villages to become self-sufficient in meeting their fuelwood, bamboo, agricultural and small timber requirements. They are also collecting non-timber forest products through community planned and managed nurseries and tree plantations.10
Social benefits are also evident from community forest management programmes. In the Sabharkantha district in Gujarat, social benefits from forest management included greater participation of women (accounting for around 60 per cent of the labour force), scheduled castes and tribes. Landless labourers and farmers were seen to improve their stocks through protecting their forest lands. Economic benefits included greater wages from employment, fodder collection and income from non-timber forest product collection.11 Such programmes can help protect women who might have to forage for firewood further afield or on their own and the time saved can give girls greater opportunities for education.
If the world is to act on the scale necessary to avoid dangerous climate change, the emissions arithmetic implies all countries must take stronger action. Keeping temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius requires total annual world emissions to fall to around 32-33 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2030, from the 50 billion tonnes today, but current projections indicate that developing country emissions alone are likely to be around 37-38 billion tonnes in 2030, with a world total which remains over 50 billion. Such a path is consistent with a four degrees Celsius temperature rise, rather than a two degree rise. This implies stronger action will be required from all developing countries, even in the unlikely situation that developed countries reduced their emissions to zero by 2030 (they are more likely to be well over 10 billion tonnes). This is a deeply inequitable story, since the rich countries grew rich on high-carbon growth and the poor countries are hit earliest and hardest by climate change. The rich countries have a great responsibility to set a strong example themselves, including providing support for developing countries’ transitions to low-carbon growth and development paths. Delaying action in developing countries because of this inequity will only lead to further delay in stronger action globally and perpetuate and lock-in a high carbon path that is the most destructive and inequitable outcome of all. The low-carbon alternative presents real opportunities to approach development in a different way, one which is both more sustainable and equitable.
The economic arguments and environmental arguments are intertwined; they are not separate. An attempt at high-carbon growth is bad economics, catastrophic to the environment and living standards, and will fundamentally undermine the fight against poverty.
Lord Nicholas Stern is a professor, economist and President of the British Academy.
1Kishwan, Pandey and Dadhwal, 2009, India’s Forest and Tree Cover: Contribution as a Carbon Sink,Technical Paper, Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education.
2IDEAcarbon, 2008, Forestry in the Global Deal.
3Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2009, India’s Forest and Tree Cover: Contribution as a Carbon Sink, Government of India. Arguably, the appropriate price for CO2 should be much higher than this.
5The World Bank, 2006, Unlocking Opportunities for Forest-Dependent People in India, World Bank India, New Delhi.
6Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2009, India State of Forest Report: Forest Survey of India, Government of India, Dehra Dun.
7Nayak, Kohli and Sharma, 2006, Livelihood of local communities and forest degradation in India: Issues for REDD+. Ministry of Environment and Forests/TERI, New Delhi.
8Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2009, Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Livelihood Improvement Project: Environment and social management framework, Government of India, New Delhi
9Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2009, India’s Forests: Conservation, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, New Delhi.
10Bhatnagar, 2010,Community benefits from forest restoration: a case study of Nivas block, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh in India, 18thCommonwealth Forestry Conference, Edinburgh.
11Trivedi and Modi, 2012,Forest Management Systems and Community-Based Forestry: A Case of Sabharkantha (South) Forest Division of Gujarat State, Working paper, December.
Author: Lord Nicholas Stern, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, February 2013.