India's growing demand for goods impacts forests globally

Monday, 20 March 2017 14:47 GMT

In this 2006 file photo, an Indian worker handles wooden poles at a warehouse in Mumbai. REUTERS/Arko Datta

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Indian industry can play a key role in curbing carbon emissions and helping protect some of the world’s most valuable forests

As the national agenda to fight climate change ramps up, one area often overlooked is the role that forests play in addressing this global challenge. Forests are significant carbon sinks but their rapid conversion to supply key commodities like wood pulp, palm oil, timber and natural rubber threatens to undermine efforts on climate.

As India’s economy and demand for natural resources grows, its impact on forests across the globe is also increasing. Greater focus from government and industry is needed to reduce the impact of trade in these key commodities on natural forests around the world.

Research shows strong links between Indian imports of these forest-based commodities and some of the world’s most high conservation value landscapes in Southeast Asia and Africa. These commodities go into the making of everyday goods like paper, tyres, furniture, vegetable oils, and even products like soaps, detergents and noodles. 

Forests in these countries are home to some of the most endangered species like elephants, tigers and rhinos, and also among the world’s major “deforestation fronts” – areas predicted to witness the highest forest loss and degradation over the next two decades.

Two of the countries that feature prominently across India’s forest-based commodity trade flows reported the highest net loss of annual forest area in the world between 2010 and 2015 – Indonesia, which lost 684,000 hectares of forest area at a rate of 0.7 percent a year, and Myanmar, which lost 546,000 hectares of forest area at a rate of 1.8 percent a year.

Additionally, countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia where India sources a large share of its industrial roundwood and veneer for the making of furniture and fixtures, are clocking among the fastest rates of acceleration of tree cover loss in the world.

GLOBAL CONTEXT

In recognition of the need for collective effort on this front, several public and private initiatives have emerged recently. Regulatory frameworks such as the Lacey Act in the United States and FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) and EUTR (European Union Timber Regulation) in the EU have been introduced, aimed at driving greater legality and transparency in global forestry supply chains.

At a global level, the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 recognised and acknowledged the key role that resilient forests and landscapes play in mitigating climate change. Nearly 80 countries identified the land sector, which covers agriculture and forestry, in their climate action plans as an area of focus for reducing emissions. Forests thus play a major role in the pledges made by countries towards meeting the targets set, as they have the potential to meet up to a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions reductions up to 2030.

At the corporate level, the 2014 Climate Summit in New York saw 53 of the world’s largest companies like Cargill, PepsiCo, Unilever and General Mills sign the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), through which they committed to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. Hundreds of companies from the Consumer Goods Forum have made the same pledge in recognition of the need for collective effort to address deforestation and its related impacts.

Since the adoption of the NYDF in 2014, the movement to tackle deforestation linked to agricultural commodities like palm oil, timber, pulp and paper, soy and cattle, has developed rapidly, particularly within the private sector. A report titled Tracking corporate commitments to deforestation-free supply chains, published by Supply Change in 2016, researched 629 companies with exposure to deforestation risk, and found that 66 percent of these companies have made at least one public commitment to eliminate or reduce deforestation from their supply chains.[iv]

Change in India will require a combination of policy and corporate commitment to responsible trade. Manufacturers of products like furniture, paper and packaging, tyres and vegetable oils, must complement growing actions on energy efficiency and renewable energy by also working with their suppliers on deforestation-free sourcing. Through a more responsible approach, Indian industry can play a key role in curbing global carbon emissions and in helping to protect some of the world’s most valuable forests.

Philip Tapsall is director of sustainable business at WWF-India.

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