World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development: Ecosystem-based Adaptation to achieve India’s climate change goals

By 2030, our aim to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy by 45% (as compared to 2005) is indeed laudable, and the 1-billion-tonne emission cut is even more significant.

climate change
A view of Duke Energy's Marshall Power Plant in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, U.S. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Crispino Lobo & Arjuna Srinidhi 

While the world is contemplating the inevitable rise in global temperatures by the end of 2030, the outcomes of COP26 were disappointing for many. Despite the fact, India made some bold commitments during the summit that drew the attention of several experts and climate activists worldwide. 

India’s five-fold strategy, which our Prime Minister presented as the Panchamrita (nectar elements), categorically focuses on expanding the non-fossil energy capacity, increasing renewable energy usage and reducing the carbon emissions. By 2030, our aim to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy by 45% (as compared to 2005) is indeed laudable, and the 1-billion-tonne emission cut is even more significant. Much of these targets set for the next decade are pivotal to India’s long-term goal of ‘net-zero emissions’ by 2070.

Considering the urgency posed by rapid climate change, India’s ambitious targets have certainly set an example for several other countries. However, for a developing nation with over 1.4 billion people (and 1/4th poor population), this journey will have its own set of challenges. Since agriculture and industrial development are the non-negotiable aspects of our economy, India will need a robust, but different roadmap to tread the path of climate change mitigation.

Responding to Climate Change with Equity and Inclusiveness

Despite the recent pledges made at COP26, it is estimated that the world is headed for 2.4o C of global warming, far in excess of 1.5o C limit that countries have committed to. The gap between 1.5o C and 2.7o C can be the difference between survival and disaster for the most vulnerable regions of the world, including small island countries, densely populated coastal cities and the ever expanding dryland regions. The target and the most direct solution is clear – to cut down on anthropogenic emissions rapidly and sequester the remaining.

However, this seemingly simple solution has its practical challenges, especially for a country like India. With an alarmingly high hunger index and over 300 million poor, one of India’s primary goals is also to ensure food security and decent living standards for its people. Climate change is already causing loss of lives, land and livelihoods and the poorest are at climate risk twice over. About 70% of Indian households depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but are facing dire consequences of frequent droughts, low rainfall and other climate uncertainties. The repercussions are endless – from land degradation and overexploitation of natural resources, to loss of incomes, distress migration and abysmal quality of life – climate change is pushing the development indices into a downward spiral. 

This puts India in a catch-22 situation where we need to work on reducing the development deficit by strengthening infrastructure and industries, while keeping the emissions strictly under check. It is crucial that these changes are not seen in isolation, but in a more holistic manner. For instance, declining agriculture productivity is a result of poor soil health, depleting groundwater table, loss of biodiversity and resource intensive farming practices. Addressing these challenges would require that we adopt an ecosystems perspective and nature-based approach that ensures sustainability and complements the ongoing efforts to achieve net-zero targets. COP26 also recognized the importance of nature for both reducing emissions and building resilience to mitigate climate change impacts. Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) is a promising approach that strives to regain this balance by restoring the natural resources and also building adaptive capacities of people to combat the adverse impacts of climate change.

It is assuring that India has recognized the challenge and strategically planned investments in renewable and non-fossil energy to ease the pressure on natural resources.  However, we need an equal (if not stronger) emphasis on reducing ecosystem and land  degradation and building people’s resilience to safeguard their lives and livelihoods from the adverse impacts of global warming. From drastic weather patterns, forest fires, locusts attacks and now COVID, we have seen tremendous fluctuations in the environment during the last few years. This is largely  a result of extreme imbalance in the natural ecosystems due to years of over-exploitation of resources and sheer neglect.

EbA – contributing to the climate change goals 

The global goal on adaptation, while not as explicit as the mitigation goal, includes a focus on protecting and restoring ecosystems, by strengthening agriculture, protecting livelihoods and lives. Unfortunately, ecosystems in much of rural India, providing primary support to the poor, are highly degraded. Driven by sheer necessity and limited options, the needy sections often resort to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, thereby causing long-term damage to the environment which further exacerbates  climate change.

EbA is a low-cost, nature-based, and pro-poor strategic approach that transforms the rural ecosystem in a sustainable manner. Besides reviving and restoring the natural landscape and promoting conventional & eco-friendly practices, EbA provides a comprehensive approach that helps strengthen people’s capabilities, boost local livelihoods, promote community health and well-being, and encourages inclusive and equitable participation.

This can potentially catalyze the process of climate change mitigation by enhancing the carbon absorption capacities of our environment, while  also securing a better quality of life for the vulnerable poor. 

The impact and potential of EbA in sequestering carbon and building resilience to climate change is based on concrete evidence across varied geographies. For instance, two decades of intensive ecosystem-based projects in drought-prone areas of Maharashtra have shown results such as a 30% increase in the area of forest cover and plantations and 8 to 9 fold increase in agricultural income. Even in more recent cases, where considerable watershed development work has already taken place, EbA interventions like a focus on climate resilient agricultural practices, water harvesting and water stewardship, biodiversity conservation and diversified livelihoods led to impacts such a 37% rise in average income level, an 87% increase in water storage capacity and significant drop in distress migration.

Similar trends are seen in the villages of Madhya Pradesh, with a drastically different landscape – of dense forest cover and water bodies. Decades of unsustainable farming practices led to  severe problems of soil erosion, vegetation loss and compounded impacts of climate changes. EbA led interventions, over the years, have successfully replenished most of the lost resources. Over 50% of the barren land is now cultivable and the soil carbon detachment has significantly reduced in the region. Our research indicates that soil carbon contents in treated watersheds under an EbA approach increased by an average of  0.41 t C/ha in 19 years. If scaled to the entire semi-arid land of India (95.7 Mha), an approximate 39 Mt C or 144 Mt CO2eq could be sequestered in soils by improved land management and conservation, which is equivalent to 12% of all of India’s GHG emissions from land use in 2010 (Sommer et al., 2018).

Collective action is the only option

EbA is a promising approach that can bring a remarkable shift in ecological health, community well-being and climate resilience. However, ecosystem restoration and climate change adaptation is also a path that requires consistent, long-term, strategic efforts. Considering the rapid changes in climate and temperatures, we need to act urgently and use the power of collective action.

Across geographies, the requirement for every project under EbA is unique to the specific location, its biodiversity as well as the social and cultural fabric. Given the pace at which we need to act, any single agency or even a few working together, cannot respond adequately and effectively to the challenge. To make EbA a successful intervention, a wide range of complementary stakeholders need to come together and achieve the shared vision.

We need people and organizations to join collaboratives such as ECOBARI that bring together research institutes, corporates, government agencies  and civil society with the aim of upscaling EbA and promoting nature-based solutions. ECOBARI, launched in November 2021, is the first national network in India with the aim to be a leading platform that grounds EbA at scale through ‘science-practice-business’ partnerships, policy engagement and resource provisioning, so as to achieve the SDGs, the Land Degradation Neutrality and Climate Change commitments of India.

It’s time to act and make the ecosystem more agile

COP26 has brought mixed reactions from the global fraternity and there are endless debates surrounding countries’ capability, ambitions and willingness to achieve the targets. However, given the time we are living in, we must understand the urgency of the issue and start working in whatever capacity possible.

Irrespective of the terminologies used to promote adaptation to climate change, it is important we adopt ecosystem-based, holistic approaches and work together with nature while charting our future. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the urgency of restoring this balance with nature while also highlighting the need for ensuring equity – issues that are ingrained in the principles of the EbA approach.

While governments  across the world realize the urgent need to submit and implement stronger 2030 emission reduction targets, it is crucial that equal attention be paid to promoting  greater equity and inclusiveness in order to achieve a just transition. Ecosystem-based Adaptation can play a crucial role in this journey.

(The authors – Crispino Lobo, Co-founder and Managing Trustee of WOTR and Arjuna Srinidhi, Associate thematic lead for climate change and ecosystem-based adaptation research at the WOTR Centre for Resilience Studies (W-CReS). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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