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Climate-smart forestry a robust option

Anthropogenic climate change is impacting all aspects of human life. The current capability of human-designed systems and processes to deal with the impacts of climate change is no match for the scale and spontaneity at which such impacts are experienced.

The 2013 event of unseasonal rain leading to devastating flash floods in the Kedar valley in Uttarakhand is a grim reminder of the limits to human capability, and helplessness. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), such climatic events in the future are projected to be more severe.

There is an urgent need to initiate the measures that can quickly build and match natures’ proportions in dealing with the impacts of climate change. Currently, no man-made systems of such proportion or capability exist. However, if we care, we can revert to the nature for solutions.

In our bodies, and outside of us in all living systems, water is found in two states - liquid and gas – and this enables the life processes at the cellular level. The average global temperature, which is about 15 degrees Celsius, enables this co-existence of two states of water. Loss of life-enabling temperature on the Earth, say due to global warming, can potentially bring an abrupt end to life through intensifying feedback mechanisms. Thermoregulation (temperature control) of our planet is thus essential.

Russian scientists have argued that forests promote thermoregulation on the Earth through biotic regulation of the environment. They have conjectured that loss of all the forests of the world would trigger changes and result in one of the two two conditions: either the temperature on the Earth would be +400 degrees Celsius with evaporated oceans, or it would turn into a snowball at -100 degrees Celsius. Flourishing forests can potentially avoid such conditions.

Human, as well as natural systems, would be impacted under climate change inter alia due to rising temperature and redistribution of fresh water on the continents. Forests play a pivotal role in hydrology and exert a strong influence on climate. Technology-based options to mitigate climate change such as carbon dioxide capture and storage and reflecting solar radiations back into space are costly, unreliable and riddled with the unintended risks. Under the growing climatic adversity, Climate-Smart Forestry (CSF) interventions offer a robust practical option to deal with the risks from climate change.

The CSF aims at the following: i) minimising emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) from forests; ii) enhancing carbon sequestration in forest ecosystems and trees; iii) building forest resilience; iv) naturalising tree plantations with native species; and, v) ‘human selection’ of drought-resistant and heat-tolerant genetic provenances of plant species.

Risk assessment

Risk assessment for Indian forests shows the higher vulnerability of forest plantations largely owing to their low biodiversity status and high stress from non-climatic sources such as forest fire and cattle grazing. The CSF management aims to reduce the risk by naturalisation of forest plantations through regeneration of native tree species and managing the non-climatic stresses. A reliable option under CSF is to mimic the nature. Following the ways of nature in forest management quickly restores beneficial ecological processes and builds resilience.

Further, the natural forests of the country can practically be categorised into two categories: one, that are largely intact, and two, that are disturbed and degraded. Hence, CSF’s `prompt preservation approach’ for the intact natural forests and ‘restoration approach’ for degraded natural forests.

India is committed to create an additional carbon dioxide sink of 2.5-3 billion metric tonnes through forest and tree cover enhancement by 2030 under the Paris Agreement on climate change. Also, tree planting activity is vital to meet the targets to to the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development that pertain to ‘climate action’ and ‘life on land’, respectively.

For the success of tree planting under future climate, humans must select native tree species having drought-resistant and heat-tolerant genetic material. Such ‘human selection’ is critical because depending on ‘natural selection’ process is not a viable option to populate forest and other areas with trees under climate change. It is so because of the faster pace of anthropogenic climate change and the concurrently acting stress from the non-climatic factors.The CSF is a cost effective tool for mitigation of climate change and strengthening the adaptability of the society as well as the forests to its impacts. The draft National Forest Policy 2018, which is under discussion, is conscious of the CSF’s potential. State forest departments would do well to quickly adopt the CSF approach for enhancing the status of forests and tree cover.

- Author is an IFS officer & DG, EMPRI.

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