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Greater focus needed on forest carbon initiatives

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Talk about carbon and most people think of “energy carbon”: which is produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal. Most people, including policymakers and entreprenurs, seem to overlook “forest carbon”.

Forests have sequestered 4 centuries worth CO2 emissions
By the end of the 21st Century, burning of fossil fuels for electricity, transportation and factory production, etc. is likely to see the emission of over 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide into earth’s atmosphere. Impressive as that number is, not many are aware that the world’s forests hold an astonishing 2 trillion tons of carbon! As long as those forests remain, that huge amount of carbon is out of the atmosphere. Reducing forest coverage will lead to increased carbon in the atmosphere.

Forests play a unique role in controlling atmospheric carbon. On the one hand, they serve as a carbon “sink” by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to Air Info Now, an acre of trees can absorb as much as four tons of carbon dioxide in one year. On the other hand, deforestation is double trouble – that much carbon dioxide is no longer removed from the atmosphere. And worse still, more carbon is released into the atmosphere through burning of biomass, etc.

But forests are being increasingly tapped for energy needs
In India, the focus is more on carbon energy than on forest energy. Carbon energy, because of its short-term results, takes up more of the policymakers’ attention. In an effort to improve the economic well-being of the people [read urban population] more carbon energy is being generated through use of fossil fuels. However, for the vast majority of India’s population that resides in her villages, electricity and oil are less relevant to their lifestyles.

For the most part, India’s rural population depends on biomass for energy and forests are the key sources, [sometimes the only sources], of fuel for cooking, etc. Continued degradation of forests could lead to higher carbon emissions, adding to the climate change threat scenario.

Economic value on forests is hard to aggregate: making it hard to define incentives
Most people assume that forest energy [in the form of trees being cut down for fuel] is free to the user. However, that is not always the case: apart from the time and labour being spent to obtain forest fuels, sometimes these people have to shell out money as rent or to pay bribes to forest officials since most of the forests are ‘protected areas.’

Already under pressure to reduce carbon emissions, India’s energy policymakers need to give greater consideration to finding a solution to the energy needs of the rural population [whether poor or otherwise]. Continued deforestation would have disastrous results, both immediate and long term, as it contributes around 12% of carbon emissions from human activities, according to a study led by Guido van der Werf that was published in Nature Geoscience. Unfortunately, the carbon that is stored in forests and that is being tapped doesn’t have a well calculated economic value: which is why it is being ignored. A prospect for a national reasearch inventorization project exists here.

How do we get the rural poor to abandon their dependency on forest energy? The grid based electricity system that is in place right now, is not much of a solution. It is extremely expensive to take grid-based electricity to the remote and interior areas of the country. This expense is another of the reasons why large swathes of India’s landscape have no access to electricity.

Some green-gridless energy solutions for forest carbon users
There are “green” energy solutions such as solar or wind power, that could be used in situ and therefore provide the rural poor an alternative to forest carbon.

Solar power, if harnessed effectively, could be the ideal means to provide even remote areas the energy for lighting and heating. Solar energy is “free” and an almost inexhaustible supply is available, making it a form of renewable energy. Solar energy does not pollute the atmosphere. Solar energy does not suffer from price volatility like oil or coal, where prices could rise or fall almost on a daily basis!

Most parts of India are blessed with abundant sunshine for a good part of the year. At present the energy conversion efficiency is between 15-17 percent, but with more investment in research for better photovoltaic cells, the lighting and heating needs of the rural poor could be solved to a great extent. Already solar lanterns, solar rice cookers, water heaters, pumps, etc. are in use.

According to a study conducted by Taiwan-based Professor Govindasamy Agoramoorthy and Dr. Minna Hsu that ScienceDaily published on April 28, 2009, “The use of solar energy will contribute to India’s future energy security, particularly in rural areas where the technology that converts sunlight directly into electricity offers a decentralized alternative to uncertain electricity supplies. If implemented efficiently, renewable energy projects could not only improve the quality of life for India’s rural poor but also enhance sustainable use of the environment.”

It could be possible to overcome the problem of less or no production of solar energy during cloudy weather/night time by a combination of storage batteries and so on. At any rate, for lighting purposes, this form of energy would be ideal as standalone fixtures like streetlights can have storage battery support and electronics to help store power during the day and release the power at night.

Wind power is another source of energy that could replace forest carbon. Windmills can also be located on a standalone basis, providing energy for the village community. To overcome the problem of little or no generation of power on certain days, wind power could be combined with storage batteries etc. to make up for any shortfall in power production.

A combination of solar power and wind power could supply the energy needs of a large number of rural people, thus removing the necessity of relying on forest energy.

“Gobar” gas or methane gas is a very viable option for the rural population. India has the world’s largest livestock population, with some 250 million cattle. Community-based gobar gas [also called biogas] plants could take care of the energy needs of a village. Gobar gas-powered generators could provide electricity for the community. Gobar gas can also be collected and stored in cylinders [similar to the LPG cylinders] and used for cooking or as fuel for suitably modified automobile engines.

Scalability of these solutions need Public-Private-Panchayat partnerships
There are a number of NGOs and small companies in the fields of solar and biomass energy that are working towards increasing the efficiency and or lowering the cost of using existing energy sources. The government needs to look into possible private-public partnerships [or even private-public-panchayat partnerships] to accelerate the use of alternate sources of energy to wean rural people away from depending on forest carbon for energy needs. In the name of reducing carbon emissions and or protecting forest resources, we cannot deny our rural people access to a better life.

Image(s) courtesy:
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