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Forests in the Climate Change Conundrum

“The worst thing that can happen during the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapses, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few] generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us for.”

- Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Winner

Climate change and its impact on various sectors are of concern to every nation. Studies have predicted an increase of 4 degree Celsius average temperature over the Indian subcontinent by 2085. The ecological damages can occur due to different manifestations of climate change, like variations in the general climatic regime, increased frequency in occurrence of extreme events( like flood and heat waves), El Nino, Pacific Dipole Southern Oscillation etc. Precisely due to this, importance has been given to understand the vulnerability of primary sectors like agriculture, forestry and fisheries to climate change. The role of these sectors in the livelihoods of farmers and indigenous communities also aggravates the problem.

Forest occupies a special place in the Climate Change conundrum. They are popularly known as the lungs of the earth owing to its oxygen production. At the same time, forests also trap carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. One acre of trees removes up to 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year. In the usual scenario carbon dioxide is released as a product of respiration. But large amount of emissions arise from deforestation and burning of forests. About 20% of the global carbon dioxide emissions are contributed from deforestation and land degradation (Ravindranath et al. 2012).

FAO (2004) has estimated the global forest cover to be around 4 billion hectares of land, or 30% of the Earth's land surface. Climate change will have far and wide reaching impacts at multiple ways. These impacts can be classified according to the nature of impact and mechanism of impact. The nature of impacts can be either positive or negative while the mechanism can be either direct or indirect, depending on how the impact is manifested.

The immediate response of forests to a change in temperature and precipitation constitutes the direct impacts. These can arise either due to increase in temperature which has a wide ranging impacts like change in species composition disappearance of species from particular climatic zone (tropics). Interestingly, an increase in temperature in the temperate forests is beneficial as it increases the overall timber production in the region. The indirect effects of climate change are manifested through its tinkering with various physical and biological mechanisms of the forest ecosystems. They take time to manifest which makes the establishment of a direct causality a difficult task. Forest fires especially in India falls into this category such case. The 2016 Uttarakhand forest fires gained much attention and has been touted as the result of climatic variability over the years. But identifying the extend to which variability plays a role is important in this case. Whatever be the underlying causes, the destruction caused due to forest fires releases the trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and also leads to large scale ecological damages.

All international programs and policies focus on forests as a mitigation strategy. This necessitates the need for conservation of existing forests as well as expansion of forest area. The total carbon stock in the country’s forest is estimated to be 7, 044 million tones.The INDC (Intended Nationally determined goals) target for forestry sector envisages creation of additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes of CO2. Though India has a lot of laws related to conservation of forests, new programs like Green India Mission, Green Kerala Mission are rolled out to augment the reforestation and regeneration processes along with the involvement of the local communities. At the same time, ensuring the sustainability of these programs will be the key challenge to be tackled.

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