Friday, August 1, 2008

Climate Change: Take Action Now

Climate Change: Take Action Now

Fig. 3: Around 70 million tribals in India are dependent on the forests
© Copyrighted under S. Mahinsha

Fig. 2: Exotic Forest Hotspot at the Western Ghats
©Copyrighted with The Hindu Photo Library and CES, Indian Institute of Science

Fig. 1: Left panel: Solid lines are multi-model global averages of surface warming (relative to 1980-1999) for the SRES scenarios A2, A1B and B1, shown as continuations of the 20th century simulations. The orange line is for the experiment where concentrations were held constant at year 2000 values.
The bars in the middle of the figure indicate the best estimate (solid line within each bar) and the likely range assessed for the six SRES marker scenarios at 2090-2099 relative to 1980-1999. The assessment of the best estimate and likely ranges in the bars includes the Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs) in the left part of the figure, as well as results from a hierarchy of independent models and observational constraints.
Right panel: Projected surface temperature changes for the early and late 21st century relative to the period 1980-1999. The panels show the multi-AOGCM average projections for the A2 (top), A1B (middle) and B1 (bottom) SRES scenarios averaged over decades 2020-2029 (left) and 2090-2099 (right). [Source: IPCC, 2007]

Climate change today is a g
lowing issue. As rightly mentioned by Prof. (Dr.) N Ravindranath of Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc. In the Survey Of The Environment, The Hindu, 2007 issue, “Climate change is the most important global environmental issue facing humanity.” It indeed has the capacity to derail and adversely affect the natural ecosystems that can affect the Species Distribution on planet and can even bring about a species altercation. This can also affect the socio-economic policies of many countries, directly affecting Food Security and Property Welfare Rights.

The latest report (see Fig: 1) by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warns a warming of 0.2 degree Celsius can lead to a staggering rise of 8.6 degrees till the end of the century that can spell havoc as far as the Global Temperature is concerned. The scientific evidence is already showing upon the Indian weather as we are getting longer summers, rainfalls not at the right time, heavy rainfalls at unexpected quarters of the year resulting in flooding and loss of lives and government property, no rainfall in some dry parts of the country for a long time creating drought like situations, decreased irritability and poor production of soil, flooding in low lying areas due to increase in sea level. Already we have lost around 56 acres of Mangrove forests due to increase in sea level and also we are on the verge of loosing our cities on the coastal areas if this continues.

Highly Vulnerable

Climate is the most important determinant of vegetation patterns and has a significant influence on forest patterns. Climate change could cause irreversible damage to unique forest ecosystems and biodiversity, rendering several exotic plant and animal species extinct.1

Fig.2: Exotic Forest Hotspot at the Western Ghats
©Copyrighted with The Hindu Photo Library and CES, Indian Institute of Science

Forest ecosystems are highly vulnerable to climate change. According to IPCC reports, that the unprecedented warming observed in the past few decades has already made an impact on forest ecosystems, such as, pole-ward and upward shift in ranges of plant, insect, bird and fish species. Further, plant flowering, bird arrival, migratory bird patterns 2 , seasonal breeding patterns of animals like tigers, panthers, olive ridley turtles, as well as flowering plants have been observed to be occurring earlier than expected.

Before independence, it was recorded that India’s Gross Forest Cover (GFC) was 40% of the geographical area and that have reduced to a mere 20% in the year 2003 (Source: Forest Survey of India). As we all know, India is developing country and the loss of GFC has been largely attributed to the expansion of cities and industrialization. More and more population means more and more production of food crops. To gain a balance between increasing population and liquidity of food flow, large forest areas are still getting deforested every year leading to loss of GFC. This in turn is putting pressure on the forest animals. Man-animal conflict is on the rise and researchers are pointing their fingers to the loss of GFC as one of the major factors that are responsible for the present scenario.

Forest also plays a crucial role to the village economy. Half of India’s population is in the villages and they solely depend upon the forest products. When there is forest loss, there will be loss of income for the scores of people who inhabit these villages.

Nearly 2,00,000 villages and 70 million (see Fig.3) tribals in India are dependent on the forests for their daily bread. As a result, people from the rural areas are forced to migrate to urban areas for feeding their families. In Economics, we call this as “Workforce Migration” that brings about a population burst to already overcrowded Indian cities that serve as lifeline to Indian Economy. Thus we can see that Climate Change is not only impacting the Forest Biodiversity hampering the crucial ecosystems (that serve as linkers between the food chain) but also affecting the economy of almost all countries including India.

Climate Change Projections

Studies were carried out at the Indian Institute of Science (by Professors Ravindranath, Joshi and Sukumar), using the climate change projections from regional climate model of Hadley centre (HadRM3), obtained from Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, and a global vegetation re­sponse model called BIOME (Biogeochemical In­formation Ordering Management Environment).

The impacts were assessed for the period around 2085 for two (high and moderate) greenhouse gas emission scenarios, with projections of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at 740 and 575 parts per million by 2085.

The Indian subcontinent is projected to experience a warming of 2-6° C by the end of the current century. As far as Unseasonal rainfall is concerned, it is projected to change in some regions, but very little change is projected for the Indian monsoon over major parts of peninsular India. For example, Rajasthan may experience reduction in rainfall and Punjab may experience no change or a marginal reduction in rainfall; whereas in the rest of the states, rainfall may increase during the monsoon months.
An assessment of the impact of climate change projections on forest ecosystems for the two green­house gas emission scenarios for 2085 showed that 68 per cent and 77 per cent of forested grid are likely to experience shifts in forest vegetation type.

In other words, there may not be a total replacement of one forest type by another under the projected climate change scenarios, due to differing climate toler­ance of the various plant species in a forest. For example researchers at the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun and Kerala have given an interesting example:

• If the Montane grasslands of the Western Ghats are invaded by woody plants, including exotic weeds, the endemic Nilgiri Tahr may be threatened.

• Similarly, upward altitudinal migration of plants in the Himalayas could reduce the Alpine meadows and related vegetation, adversely impacting the habitats of several high-altitude mammals including wild sheep, goat, antelope and cattle.

• Further, increased precipitation in Northeastern India may lead to severe flooding of the Brahmaputra and place the wildlife of the Kaziranga National Park at risk.

Biodiversity of the existing forest types will not be totally replaced by the new forest type or species-mix under the changed climate due to complexities of climate tolerance of different species in a forest and the barriers to species migration.

Changing climate requires dynamic forest planning and management strategies. There is a need to incorporate climate change concern in the long-term forest planning and policy making proc­ess. The traditional Working Plan approach of managing forests adopted by the Forest Departments, which is not adequate even in a situation of no climate impacts, may need to be improved and made dynamic to incorporate the climate impacts.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as State Forest Departments do not have the luxury of waiting for a perfect understanding of the climate projections or the impacts on forest biodiversity and biomass production at microlevel, to plan and implement adaptation practices and strategies. Many of the precautionary and win-win practices and strategies mentioned above could be evaluated and considered for implementation. Forest and biodiversity conservation, prevention of forest fragmentation and multi-species based afforestation are examples of such strategies.

Examples of forest policies, which may reduce the vulnerability of forest ecosystems to climate change, include preventing fragmentation of for­ests, forest conservation, enhancing the coverage under protected areas and linking them, large af­forestation with multiple species to reduce pres­sure on natural forests, and involvement of local communities in forest conservation and manage­ment. India has a large afforestation programme of over one million hectares annually and also has a plan to bring a third of the geographic area under forest cover. These newly planted forests, partic­ularly the long-rotation species such as teak, will be subjected to changing climate parameters. Thus, it is important to consider and incorporate adapta­tion practices even in the afforestation programme.

Surely India has many progressive forest con­servation, afforestation, wildlife protection and community forestry policies and programmes. It is possible to explore how climate change consid­eration could be incorporated into the on-going forestry programmes and policies.

By Arunava Das, Media Analyst