India, one of the world's largest polluters, has drafted a national policy aimed at reducing its carbon emissions from deforestation as part of a global scheme which financially rewards developing nations for carbon stored through forest preservation.
But some environmentalists are sceptical, saying the move is unlikely to yield results as previous compensation schemes have not led to serious cuts in emissions.
India has the tenth largest forest coverage in the world. It is also the world's fifth largest carbon emitter, accounting for 5%of global greenhouse gases, according to the Indian government.
Deforestation and forest degradation - through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, logging and fires - account for nearly 20 percent of emissions, says the United Nations. This is more than transportation sector and second only to the energy sector. As a result, the fledgling UN-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme, or REDD+ - aims to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands, while managing them sustainably. "There is a need to recognise the carbon function of the forests and develop a fair, transparent and participatory mechanism to share the financial benefits arising out of national and international mitigation and adaptation programmes with the local communities participating in the conservation efforts," said the draft policy document issued on Wednesday by the Ministry of Environment. "The National REDD+ Policy aims to provide a roadmap for building comprehensive strategies for implementing REDD+ projects and programmes effectively in the country in the context of international development in this sector."
Around 300 million people - one quarter of India's population - are dependent on forestland, which occupies about 20 percent of the country's total territory. The national draft policy said there was significant scope for improving quality of forest cover by addressing degradation which is major problem facing centuries-old woodland in India.
The REDD+ programme could provide for the capture of around 1 billion tonnes of additional CO2 over the next three decades and significant financial incentives, the draft said. "REDD+ can be a part of an effective strategy and tool for mitigation and adaptation of climate change, improving ecological and environmental services, biodiversity conservation as well as enhancing the forest based livelihood of forest dependent communities," said the draft policy document.
But environmental group Greenpeace India said while it welcomed the move to address emissions cuts from deforestation, the country's forests faced serious challenges from industrial activities such as mining as well as the building of roads, railways and dams.
"India has always been interested in market mechanisms to address emissions cuts and climate change, but previous examples of such financial reward schemes show that they do not work," said Vinuta Gopal, Greenpeace India's climate change campaigner. "Money which is awarded for such clean ventures has often been poured into other ventures."
Gopal cited the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) - a similar emissions reduction initiative which allows countries to earn carbon credits which can be traded and sold to developed nations as part of their own reduction targets. "In the refrigeration industry, for example, we saw companies gaining credits for removing CFCs and they would then use the CDM money for putting them back into units," Gopal said. "The Indian government has also declared a clear intent to mine vast tracts of forest for coal reserves to meet energy needs and then it is drafting a policy on REDD+. Lip service is being paid to climate change."
In March, the latest report on climate change by the UN stressed the risks of global warming, making a stronger case for governments to adopt policies on adaptation and cut emissions. It predicted a rise in global temperatures of between 0.3 and 4.8 degrees Celcius (0.5 to 8.6 Farenheit) and a rise of up to 82 cm (32 inches) in sea levels by the late 21st century due to melting ice and expansion of water as it warms, threatening coastal cities from Shanghai to San Francisco.
Environmentalists say in order to constrain the impacts of climate change within limits that society will reasonably be able to tolerate, global average temperatures must be stabilised within two degrees Celsius. This, they add, will be practically impossible to achieve without reducing emissions from the forest sector, in addition to other mitigation actions.