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Can India stop diverting remaining patches of forest lands for business interests?

By Shankar Sharma*
A recent statement, which Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), put out on the occasion to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the UNFCCC, has said:
“While we’ve made enormous progress in 25 years, the world is still running behind climate change. Today, the urgency to address climate change has never been greater. But because of the work begun 25 years ago, we are also better coordinated to take it on. We have the Paris Agreement, and we have the guidelines strengthening that agreement. What we need now are results.”
India submitted its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to UNFCCC in October 2015 as a part of its obligation to the global community in combating the climate change. Countries are due to update their current pledges to the Paris Agreement by the end of next year (2020). The UN secretary general is presently calling on world leaders to bring plans, not speeches to a climate summit he is hosting in September this year (2019).
A high level understanding of the efficiency and harnessing and distribution of our natural resources within the country should indicate that India can and must do much more to reduce GHG emissions not only as its obligations to the global community, but also to ensure sustainable welfare measures for all sections of its own society. 
On the same account it should also be mentioned here that every country, except perhaps very poor African countries, can and must do much more to reduce the total GHG emissions.
At the global level the total commitments by 180 odd countries so far, including India, is estimated to be far below the needed levels of GHG reduction commitments as projected by IPCC. Hence, it should be a matter of great concern to the global community.

Dichotomy in India’s approach to climate change

A quick read of India’s NDC document provides a set of divergent statements and facts. Whereas there is a talk of high moral grounds, great tradition of our ancestors, simple life style, poverty of our people, inequitable distribution of wealth within the country etc., this NDC seem to make a claim that the country has the right to pollute even more even as late as 2040 in burning more of fossil fuels, as has been done by the developed countries during the last 150-200 years.
But the disastrous impacts of extracting and burning more fossil fuels on environmental, social and health aspects of our communities have been quietly ignored.
Meeting the Paris goal basically means cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by about 45% by 2030 and heading for net-zero emissions by 2050. Can we say that all the countries, especially large and growing countries like India and China, are on the right track to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050? Can we confidently say so at least in the case of India?
The UN’s top scientists have recently warned that we have just about 11 years to halve global emissions and avoid climate catastrophe. The climate emergency like scenario should become evidently clear by the observed scientific fact that global wildlife populations have collapsed by nearly 60% in our lifetimes.
It is impossible to see any economic rationalisation in continuing with coal power plants anywhere in the world, including India; especially since 2000 when the health and environmental impacts of coal power have become clear, and when solar and wind power costs have been plunging. It is much more so in the case of India keeping in view that we already are suffering hugely from the air and water pollution impacts.
Taking a rational look at the overall efficiency and pollution potential of coal power cycle, it was difficult to see any rationality with a coal based power policy even before year 2000. But our policy makers have continued with their business as usual scenario with ever more gusto even in 2019.

Energy policy conundrum

Few days ago the Union environment ministry has given environmental clearance for open cast coal mining in Parsa in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests, which are known as very dense forest in central India spanning about 170,000 hectares, in a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for forest cover conservation in India.
Media reports also indicate that 52 coal mines were opened during the last 5 years to fuel power drive. Recently, a power ministry study has identified 200 new sites for thermal power plants of total capacity 428.9GW. All these recent developments shall indicate that India has embarked on a disastrous developmental pathway, which can only increase its total GHG emissions by massive margins by 2050 instead of approaching the figure of net-zero.
Hence, even if India becomes successful in realising 40% of its total electrical power capacity through non-fossil fuels by 2030, as stated in its NDC, we will end up seeing massive amounts of total GHG emissions because of the vast increase in the total installed power production capacity in a business as usual scenario.
In a business as usual scenario, significantly more coal power capacity could be added by 2030 (a total of 800,000 MW electrical power capacity was projected for 2032 in the Integrated Energy Policy of the Planning Commission, 2008).
As per the draft National Energy Policy (NEP), 2017, the per capita energy demand in the country is projected to increase from 503 kgoe/capita in 2012 to 1055-1184 kgoe/capita in 2040, and the energy related emissions per capita are projected to increase from 1.2 tons of Carbon Dioxide equivalent/capita in 2012 to 2.7-3.5 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent/capita in 2040.
Efficiency in various sectors of our economy has been unacceptably low since decades despite credible warnings in that regard  
The same policy document draft also states that the share of fossil fuel based capacity in electricity by 2040 will be likely to be between 34% and 43%. This may mean about 480,000 MW of thermal power capacity by 2032 (assuming 60% of 800,000 MW as projected by the Integrated Energy Policy). This is against about 220,000 MW thermal power capacity in February 2019.
It is shocking that such an important national level policy document has no qualms in projecting that the overall share of fossil fuels in the energy basket is projected to come down from 81% in 2012 just to 78% even in the ambitious pathway by 2040, and that the energy demand as well as energy related emissions per capita will double in the same period. 
Can we see any sanity in such a policy document which, with all the planning and policy interventions, can see the drop of just 3% share of fossil fuels in the nation’s energy basket, whereas the total energy supply would have registered 2.7 to 3.2 time increase? This means a vast increase in GHG emissions in absolute terms. In such a scenario, what will be our role in combating the global warming threats?
Even assuming that all the future coal power plants in the country will be located on the sites of decommissioned old coal power plants, and are much more efficient with super critical or ultra critical boiler parameters, we will have much more total GHG emissions from the coal power sector than it is at present in a business as usual scenario.

The need for a holistic approach

What is needed is the reduction in total coal consumption, which is possible only if we considerably reduce the number of coal power plants and their total capacity; reduce the petrol and diesel consumption; and assist our poor people with efficient energy systems such as efficient stoves and renewable energy systems. Additionally, we must stop diverting our remaining patches of forest lands and do all that is possible to increase our green cover. All these are entirely feasible, and most importantly essential for the true welfare of our people.
As per India’s NDC scenario by 2030, even though the total GHG emissions in the country can be few percentage points less than what would have been otherwise, it will be much more than the absolute quantity of 2005 level because of sheer number of additional human activities such as coal power plants, industrial activities, automobiles etc.
The efficiency in various sectors of our economy has been unacceptably low since decades despite many credible warnings in that regard. There is no indication that the number of automobiles will come down in the near future. And the number of polluting industries is only increasing.
When we consider all the associated issues of climate change from a true welfare perspective, it should become amply clear to even a common man that high levels of total GHG emissions, which is invariably linked to unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources, can never be in the true interest of our people.
Since this is not acceptable, even from global warming perspective alone, India's NDC target of 40% electricity from non-fossil fuels by 2040 will not be good enough. There should have been a clear commitment about the target peak year for GHG emissions and/or peak coal consumption.
Given the necessary political will and effective participation from various sections of our society, it should be entirely feasible, techno-economically, to keep our total GHG emissions to a level even below that of 2005 by a suitable combination of measures such as energy efficiency, Demand Side Management (DSM), energy conservation, and wide spread usage of renewable energy in next 11 years. Hence, India's NDC can be termed as a serious let down of its long term welfare imperatives. It should have been much more ambitious and practical at the same time.
While an effective target to reduce the total GHG emissions is to assiduously work towards net-zero target by 2050, as recommended by IPCC, it is not enough if the emission intensity of our economy is reduced or percentage of renewable energy is increased. 
What we need is the reduction in absolute levels of total GHG emissions as early as possible, and many other enabling policies. But this is unlikely to occur with the intentions mentioned in India’s NDC.

Malady of high GDP growth rate paradigm

In this context it is critically essential that the continued diversion/destruction of the natural forest cover, un-sustainable demand for water, energy and various kinds of materials for the purpose of construction and/or industries must all drastically come down to a level where they can be re-sourced sustainably, while keeping the total pollutants and contaminants to a manageable level. 
This will require a thorough review of the destructive economic paradigm based on high GDP growth rate as has been pursued by successive governments since 1990s.
There is need for thorough review of destructive economic paradigm based on high GDP growth rate pursued since 1990s
It has to be emphasized here that a sustained high GDP growth rate year after year will mean the manufacture of products and provision of services at an unprecedented pace leading to: setting up of more factories/ manufacturing facilities; consumption of large quantities of raw materials such as iron, steel, cement, chemicals etc.; increasing an unsustainable demand for natural resources such as land, water, minerals, timber etc.; acute pressure on the government to divert agricultural /forest lands; huge demand for various forms of energy (petroleum products, coal, electricity etc.); accelerated urban migration; clamor for more of airports, airlines, hotels, shopping malls, private vehicles, express highways, railways etc.
Vast increase in each of such activities, while increasing the total GHG emissions, will also add up to reduce the overall ability of natural carbon sinks such as forests to absorb GHG emissions. There will also be increased pollution/contamination of land, air and water along with huge issues of managing the solid, liquid and gaseous wastes.
Hence, minimizing the total GHG emissions in the country is not only needed for meeting the country’s global obligations, but also to ensure that the quality of life for our people will not degrade further at an accelerated pace. 
The enormity of multiple ecological/social crises facing our country can be highlighted by the administration’s callousness in approving open cast mining activities in 170,000 hectares of Chhattisgarh’s thick Hasdeo Arand forests of central India even in 2019. 
The ecological scenario in the country can said be to calamitous in the context that there are scores of linear projects through thick forests all over the country in the name of ‘development’, which will result in the devastation of thousands of hectares of natural forests while pushing the forest dependent communities to destitution.
Media reports indicate that in the Western Ghats of Karnataka alone more than 20 linear projects in the name of roads, railways, power lines etc. are in various stages of planning and implementation. More than 30 lakh mature trees in thick and highly valuable forests of UN Heritage are projected to be cut for these projects.
When we also take into account that such large scale destruction of forests will severely impact the rainfall pattern, river water flow, water purity, and will result in the increased atmospheric temperature, soil erosion, air pollution etc. the gravity of the scenario should become evidently clear.
As against the national forest policy target of 33% forest and tree cover in country’s land area, and against the target of 66% green cover in hilly districts, the country’s green cover is only about 20% with a considerable portion of such green cover being accounted for by non-forest trees species. 
Since independence, the forest cover in the country is reported to have come down from about 40%, and the green cover is reported to be not much more than 30% in most of the hilly districts. At the present rate of diversion of forest lands the forest policy target of 33% green cover will never be achieved, and the forest cover will only keep going below the present level. Keeping in view the deleterious impact of depleted forests on all other aspects of the elements of the nature, the ecological scenario in the country can be described only as leading to a catastrophe.

The challenge for the future

It is high time that our society undertakes a thorough review of our developmental pathways, and to implement a set of economic and social action plans urgently which will lead to a minimum demand on natural resources such as land, water, minerals, timber, chemicals, energy etc. while striving to improve the quality of life for the vulnerable sections of our country, instead of the mad rush to increase the GDP by multiple times, while many sections of the society are driven to destitution.
Whereas the efforts by individuals to take effective measures towards achieving sustainable life style is essential in the long run, what has become vastly more urgent is that the government should stop/minimize those economic activities at the societal level which are leading towards accelerated degradation of the critical elements of the nature.
While the leaders of the present NDA government are staking claims for the global leadership role on climate change, their policies/ actions are not consistent with such a claim. In view of the inherent callousness/ corruption, which seem to be prevailing in our governance system, we cannot expect any improvement in the overall ecology of the country, unless the concerned CSOs make efforts to persuade the authorities to be act rationally.
Let us hope that the forthcoming general elections will elect a regime of MPs who can think rationally and enact such policies/practices which will result in a continuous improvement of the overall welfare scenario for the benefit of not only our own people, but for the sake of entire humanity.
Let us also hope that India’s revised NDC to UNFCCC will be very ambitious but still be very realistic.
---
*Power policy analyst based in Sagar, Western Ghats, Karnataka

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