India hopes to break tree-planting record. Will it help?

In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 800,000 volunteers helped plant 50 million trees on Monday, hoping to shatter a world record and help their country deal with climate change. 

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
Indian women plant saplings on the outskirts of Allahabad, India, on Monday. Hundreds of thousands of people in India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh are jostling for space as they attempt to plant 50 million trees over the next 24 hours in hopes of setting a world record.

Volunteers in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, may have set records on Monday through their effort to plant a massive 50 million trees in 24 hours. Uttar Pradesh leadership was upfront about its desire to break a Guinness World Record with the feat.

While this reforestation initiative is just one tiny part of India’s ongoing efforts to meet its commitments under the international climate agreement forged in Paris late last year, experts say it could be indicative of progress on India’s major climate change goals.

“This initiative can be a step towards progress on some level,” says Edward Parson, an environmental law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “but it is at best a small contribution to India’s greater climate commitments.”

According to Varun Sivaram, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations with expertise in sustainable urbanization, India signaled its seriousness about addressing climate issues when it released its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), or the goals it intends to meet to address global climate change in the context of its own national policy goals.

In its INDC, India signaled that working to create a green and energy-efficient transportation network, promote a clean and efficient energy system, and engage in planned afforestation efforts, were among the country’s top priorities.

“This planting project is evidence that India is going ahead with its aforestation claim,” Dr. Sivaram tells the Monitor by phone. 

"The world has realized that serious efforts are needed to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the effects of global climate change,” Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav told volunteers. “Uttar Pradesh has made a beginning in this regard."

More than 800,000 volunteers took part in the planting project this year. A similar project in Uttar Pradesh saw 10,000 trees planted last year, according to Anit Mukherjee, a policy fellow with the Center for Global Development, in a phone interview with the Monitor.

While Dr. Parson tells the Monitor that deforestation plays a small role in India’s net greenhouse gas emissions of about 3 billion metric tons per year, it is a significant problem, particularly in rural areas where people have less access to other cooking fuels, and where land demand is greater for subsistence agriculture.

With Uttar Pradesh’s emphasis on breaking the Guinness World Record for most trees planted in a single day, it is difficult to tell just how sincere the measure is. Yet, several experts tell the Monitor that while publicity might be a motivating factor, there is definitely more than a little sincerity to the effort.

“When there’s enough noise about change, then there’s got to be some substance behind it,” Parson says,

India’s national government has also inaugurated several progressive programs designed to tackle some of the country’s biggest climate issues in recent years, including a solar program intended to help wean India off of coal, one of the country’s biggest, and dirtiest, energy sources.

Still, human development remains one of the country’s highest priorities, meaning that at some point, the country is going to have to actually expand its energy use, a move that would appear to counter India’s stated interest in meeting its energy goals.

“Poverty eradication and social and economic development are first and over-riding priorities,” said Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2009.

What must India do to ensure that reforestation efforts are as effective as they can be?

The Associated Press reports that approximately 60 percent of new saplings planted generally succumb to disease or drought. Experts say that in order to make this record-breaking planting worthwhile, the tiny trees need care.

“You can’t just plant the trees,” Parson tells the Monitor, “Of course it is great to plant 50 million trees, but you also need to have procedures in place to care for them and protect them.

Experts also say that in order to have the most impact, tree-planting projects will need to be coordinated at a national level.

“There are a lot of benefits from a project like this,” said Ankur Desai, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “But for it to be most effective, it requires a certain level of coordinated effort.”

And the country seems to be taking steps in that direction, with India planning to spend $6.2 billion in a nationwide tree planting initiative. By 2030, India hopes to create a cumulative forest sink of up to 3 billion tons, or up to 200 million tons per year.

“The biggest contribution of this tree planting project is, apart from the tokenism, that it focuses on the major issues,” Dr. Mukherjee tells the Monitor. “It addresses many of the big issues for India: Pollution, deforestation, and land use.”

It will likely take the Guinness Book of World Records up to two months to verify whether the tree-planting project has broken the world record.

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