Developing city forests and ecosystem services to promote urban green spaces

The announcement of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) is a necessary and ambitious step towards restoring the ecosystems of the world. Actors around the globe are accepting and recognising the role that nature will play in the attempt to tackle the triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental pollution. An important sub-set of this initiative is the focus on improving and restoring forest landscapes. For India, with its vast forest and tree resources as well as substantial national targets geared towards nature conservation, the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration complements the various initiatives being undertaken in the country.

Ecosystem services, especially Forest Ecosystem Services (FES), have been recognised as critical natural capital that contribute to the sustainable functioning of society today. FES covers the range of ecosystem services that we derive from forests and forest landscapes and is estimated to contribute to almost half of the total ecosystem services we benefit from. Every effort must be made to protect and ensure the flow of FES for the continued growth of the country and the well-being of its people.

To this end, quantifying ecosystem services from forests and trees becomes important. India has a diverse population deriving their livelihoods from forests and decision makers can benefit with more data on ecosystem service flows. This also feeds into providing for an enhanced estimate of India’s performance against its global commitments like achieving the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of creating additional carbon sink of 2.5 – 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030; restoring 26 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2023 under the Bonn Challenge as well as the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Efforts have been made to quantify ecosystem services and put a value to them. For example, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), the Government of India, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), the Government of India is implementing the European Union supported project ‘Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (NCAVES)’. Under this initiative, MoSPI releases an annual publication titled ‘EnviStats India’ that was first published in 2018. The publication accounts for critical ecosystem services and values them using the UN-SEEA framework. 1

In addition, the monitoring of FES requires special attention due to global environmental and political importance. For this, urban forests can be excellent to pilot and fine-tune initiatives that monitor and report on FES. The Government of India announced the Nagar Van Yojana Scheme in 2020 with the aim of developing 400 Nagar Vans and 200 Nagar Vatikas to significantly enhance the green cover in cities2. A Nagar Van/Nagar Vatika is a forested area in the city or in its vicinity which will be accessible to the city dwellers and will be suitably managed for providing a wholesome environment for recreation, education, biodiversity conservation, water, and soil conservation. The initiative envisages building on a participatory approach involving coordination between the forest and other State/Union Territory Departments and support from the industry, NGOs, and the civil society.

The city forests and gardens developed under this scheme will be great places to develop FES monitoring systems for three reasons:

First, urban trees and forests provide a greater bang-for-buck in terms of the beneficiaries of ecosystem services. It is well known that cities are hotspots for climate impacts. India is the second largest urban system in the world with almost eleven per cent of the total global urban population living in Indian cities. The country has reached a turning point in its journey towards economic transformation, where half of the country will be urbanised in a few decades.

Extreme events such as heatwaves are more severe in urban systems and will continue to get worse. The vast impervious layer covering cities – or ‘concrete jungles’ – has caused increasingly frequent urban floods. These impacts are on top of other environmental issues like air pollution. If current trends hold, rapid urbanisation will continue and put pressure on the vegetation and water bodies in and around the cities. The pressure on urban nature will exacerbate the environmental problems of heat waves, urban floods and air pollution.

Urban trees and urban forests can play a crucial role in alleviating these challenges and provide ecosystem services in terms of climatic and physical benefits, ecological and economic benefits, social benefits, aesthetic, and architectural benefits.

Second, clearly monitoring and communicating the benefits of urban green spaces can improve the case for their enhancement. This would also lead to collation of quality statistical data which may then provide a common basis for a discussion among stakeholders on the composition and changes within the ecosystem and in forming developmental management plans. Incentives and funding schemes could also be designed based on the parameters monitored over time.

Third, urban forests and trees are ideal to pilot and fine-tune monitoring and reporting of FES due to their accessibility and scale. Different modes of monitoring and data collection can also be applied – ranging from technological measures like the use of Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) and networks of sensors to citizen science initiatives. This could lead to enhanced decision making which considers conservation of natural capital, cascading into more investment flows. Such reporting would also provide an added layer of credibility in our national reporting estimates, such as the Biennial Update Report submitted to the United Nations every two years.

India is one of the few countries on track to meet its international climate and restoration goals. Improved data collection and reporting from FES can help capture previously unaccounted ecosystem services that will bolster our achievements. India’s Nagar Van Yojana is a unique scheme promoting urban green spaces in our efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change and create healthy living spaces for a growing population. Leveraging this scheme to improve the accounting of FES will not only improve the implementation and uptake of the scheme, but also contribute to the wider monitoring and accounting efforts of natural capital in the country.

Authors:

Aruneema Singh, Junior Advisor Climate Change, GIZ India

Kundan Burnwal, Senior Advisor Climate Change, GIZ India

Saurab Babu, Junior Advisor Climate Change, GIZ India

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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