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    Eliminating deforestation is as important as planting trees

    Eliminating deforestation is as important as planting trees

    Eliminating deforestation is as important as planting trees
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    By CNBCTV18.com Contributor  IST (Updated)

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    The seven billion human population shares the planet with three trillion trees. At the beginning of civilisation, a fraction of this number shared the planet with about double the number of trees. In its global assessment report, the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) links severe water scarcity faced by four billion population today to the scarcity of forests and trees in their regions. 

    Will two hours in the park become the next 10,000 steps? This was suggested in a paper by the Wall Street Journal a fortnight ago.
    The seven billion human population shares the planet with three trillion trees. At the beginning of civilisation, a fraction of this number shared the planet with about double the number of trees. In its global assessment report, the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) links severe water scarcity faced by four billion population today to the scarcity of forests and trees in their regions.
    Forests have always been an integral part of human life. Every civilization in the world has venerated nature and encouraged its members to spend more time with it. There is increasing scientific research that directly connects the nature experience to positive health benefits.
    The last few years have shown an increasing proclivity among urban populations to seek interludes in nature. Visuals and headlines of ordinary citizens, as well as persons in high offices carrying out plantations in urban neighbourhoods, have been a common sight, barring the current year where the prevailing pandemic has diverted urban citizens’ concerns to immediate existential issues. The global community on climate and biodiversity has also pegged their planet rescue plans on large-scale plantations through initiatives like the Bonn Challenge and the Plant a Trillion Trees.
    Till date, the two primary mitigation actions that we have in our climate arsenal are reduced emissions and creating a carbon sink through forests which would also impact biodiversity and water security. The IUFRO global assessment report clearly highlights the Climate-Forest-Water-People link that is inextricable yet so fragile. Forests are envisaged to play a fundamental role in slowing global biodiversity loss, combatting climate change by sequestering carbon as biomass and releasing water into our rivers, streams and lakes, making them available for human use.
    So, it makes sense that tree plantation as a solution has gained much traction in recent years. Ambitious commitments, like the Bonn Challenge, seek to restore an area of 350 million hectares of degraded forests from various corners of the world by 2030 – an area more than the entire land of India. Meanwhile, ‘Plant a Trillion Trees’ seeks to plant as many trees as its name implies.
    However, several studies have questioned the efficacy of large-scale plantations carried out in different forest types across the world. These studies have conclusively asserted that if policies to incentivise plantations are poorly designed or enforced, there is a high risk of not only wasting public funds but also of releasing more carbon into the atmosphere and causing greater biodiversity loss. The studies also go on to cite several examples of plantations that have resulted in a net loss of biodiversity and far lesser amounts of CO2 sequestered, than anticipated.
    It is therefore critical to note that a collective of trees does not make a forest – a forest is a natural ecosystem. This ecosystem evolves over a long period of time through the interplay of lifeforms like flora, fauna, bacterial, fungal, other microscopic entities, and the way they interconnect with soil, air and water, thereby, yielding a range of outcomes that maintain atmospheric equilibrium, provide and retain water, food, fodder, a diverse gene pool, and so on.
    Conversely, a plantation is a monoculture that comprises a dominant species of trees marked by quick project revenues, excluding other flora species which may not support animal life that a wild forest would. Plantations are run on project mode since they are dependent on funds (budgetary or equity or debt), and commercial supply of saplings and management services.
    Plantations carried out as drives against climate change serve little beyond raising awareness. These are carried out on sporadic patches of land that do not make a plant-animal-microbe community. A sapling planted today is not equal to a tree down the years, unless nurtured and protected for as many years as until a human child goes to a school. Tropical plantations have notoriously high mortality rates and even the best-managed project mode plantations can boast of 50 percent survival. Sporadic plantations like these receive high visibility and tend to create a smug sense of feel-good among citizens who cannot navigate through the alarming UN-IPCC reports full of charts and graphs that look inscrutable.
    Yet, some plantations carried out on project mode do yield wood biomass, economic assets, and income streams. They also serve in distracting commercial and community demand on forests for wood. This is an important role considering that India is a net importer of wood and wood products in the order of 40,000 crore per annum. A third of India’s geographical area is degraded and prone to desertification with impaired ability to absorb atmospheric CO2. This island degraded on account of deforestation, over-cultivation, soil erosion, and depletion of wetlands. Much of this land can be brought under tree cover with reasonable investments.
    Therefore, investments in afforestation need to be looked at from a holistic lens of the forest ecosystem, and not just tree plantation – which only provides short term/immediate benefits. According to the World Wide Fund (WWF), forests are hosts to 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity. In short, a forest is one that is visible as a land area comprising a diverse set of trees, plants, shrubs, grasses of varying ages, animals large and small, plant-eaters as well as carnivores and millions of microscopic lifeforms that cannot be perceived by an untrained eye.
    Forests have been the foundation on which civilisations have evolved. Ironically, the exponential growth in civilisation, if measured in terms of spiralling growth in populations and wealth, has materialised at the cost of this foundation. The Lord Nicholas Stern report on climate change had marked out forest loss as the second-largest emitter of dangerous carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, next only to thermal energy and ahead of transport and industry. The decade and a half that we have moved on since Stern’s report has resolutely endorsed its worst fears in the form of extreme weather events that have increased in frequency, in impact, and in unforeseen ways, vitiating the crucial and fragile link between forests-water-people.
    The important report by Stern on India warns that it is in real danger from climate change. This report also looks at how India is well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities through technology and the carbon markets to play a lead role in climate change. This is where banks and financial institutions can play a crucial role in influencing low-carbon business and project financing carbon-negative assets such as renewables, green hydrogen, green agriculture, improved technologies, arranging financial support that garner debt/equity instruments for transition technologies.
    Cutting down forests to make way for non-forest uses comes at a high cost of loss of biodiversity and water catchments. Retaining and protecting forests is a recognized pathway to sustainable development and climate mitigation.
    The author is N Sunil Kumar, Head, Sustainable Banking, NatWest Group. Views are personal 
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