Adapting to climate change: growing trees best low-cost option

The world is warmer by 0.85 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial period (prior to 1850). In India, reports of heat wave and cloudbursts are on the rise. The Paris climate change summit held in 2015 adopted a resolution to limit global warming to a 2 degrees rise and further to make efforts to hold it at 1.5 degrees. However, adapting to even 1.5 degrees warming would be challenging and costly.

Changing climate is impacting natural systems (such as rivers, springs, forests and biodiversity) and phenomena (such as drought and rainfall), which has implications for the wellbeing of the people. In the warming world, while primary productivity (biomass and agriculture) would first increase and then decrease, the degradation rate of all materials (natural and synthetic) would only increase. This can potentially cause a vital mismatch between production and degradation rates, which may require new knowledge and technology to manage.

Trees are an important component of terrestrial biota and role of trees in environmental amelioration including moderating ambient temperature is well known. Recognising the climate change mitigation potential of trees, the theme for the ‘UN International Mother Earth Day 2016’ has been ‘Trees for the Earth’.

Trees can be grown in large numbers to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide – which is a major greenhouse gas causing global warming – and store it as wood. Growing trees with the objective of limiting global warming has add-on benefits such as support for agriculture, improved livelihoods, enhanced availability of biomass, and biodiversity conservation.

In comparison to engineering or technology-based approaches such as atmospheric carbon capture and storage (CCS), growing trees is a green and cost-effective option to adapt to and mitigate climate change. This option is particularly suitable for a developing country like India, which intends to provide sustainable development/better life quality to its citizens without adding to the carbon footprint.

Planting trees is considered sacred and large old trees of several species such as Ficusreligiosa (Peepal) and Aeglemarmelose (Baelpaetre) are worshipped. Growing trees in and around human habitations provides health and physical wellbeing benefits. Trees growing on road-dividers, alley-corners and home-backyards are a common site in human habitations. A tree can adjust according to space; and can even be manicured. Coconut trees adjusted through walls and roofs is a fairly common sight in peninsular India.

Farmers grow light-crown trees on crop-field bunds which are otherwise left unplanted. Growing trees thus improves land-use efficiency. Dedicated areas for growing trees are though desirable but lack of it cannot discourage us from doing so. Interestingly, in urban areas, trees are frequently used for nailing advertisements and running cables. A tree produces benefits for humans even beyond its life as wood. Economically, the benefit of growing trees - in wood itself - is sufficient to justify the effort and investment.

Economics of growing trees: From the tree growth rates reported in the Forestry Working Paper FP/1 (2001) published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a conservative estimate suggests that about 5m3wood (of timber value) accumulates per hectare per year in tree plantations in India.

At this growth rate, 18 cubic feet timber and 0.5 tonne of firewood can be obtained from a tree in 25 years (assuming 250 trees per hectare). Considering cost of timber as Rs 200 per cubic feet and that of firewood as Rs 800 per tonne, the present worth of a tree felled after 25 years is Rs 4,000 in wood value itself.

Cost of raising seedling
According to the sanctioned rates of Karnataka Forest Department (KFD), cost of raising one seedling in a cylindrical container of the size 5” (diameter) and 8” (height) and delivering it to a farmer at a village 40 km away from forest nursery is Rs 6.25. A farmer receiving such a seedling invests about Rs 65 on planting and maintenance during first three years after which it grows naturally, if not damaged.

Assessment of the cost effectiveness of investment on growing trees shows that - in wood value itself – the return on every rupee invested is Rs 5.55, Rs 11.15 and Rs 27.85, when 10%, 20% and 50%, respectively, of the seedlings survive and mature in 25 years. Further, while economic break-even for growing trees is reached at a survival rate as low as 2%, the environmental and other tangible (fruits, seeds) benefits are a bountiful bonus.

Uttar Pradesh planted five crore seedlings on July 11-12, 2016 and established the Guinness World Record for planting maximum number of seedlings in 24 hours.

Maharashtra planted two crore seedlings on July 1, 2016. Telangana intends to plant 40 crore seedlings this monsoon season. State governments are thus aggressively planning tree-planting programmes. The economics and environmental benefits justify the effort and investment on growing trees.

The KFD is running ‘One Crore Tree Campaign’ during the current monsoon season with the participation of other agencies and the larger civil society. Keeping in view the warming of climate, the campaign intends to build momentum for growing trees in the state and appropriately professes the need through slogans.

Under the campaign, seedlings are planted in government, private, institutional and other suitable lands. Further, KFD has also initiated a scheme to incentivise tree planting in private lands. Under this scheme, Rs 10, 15 and 20 are given as incentive at the end of first, second and third year, for each surviving seedling.

Campaign for planting trees with the involvement of stakeholders needs to be sustained and further intensified in different states. The economics of growing trees suggests that seedlings could be provided for free at every gram panchayat and in urban areas to promote and incentivise large-scale planting. Growing trees is an environmentally robust, socially adaptable and economically low-cost option to deal with the risks arising due to climate change.

(The writer is Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Water Resources Department, Karnataka)

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