The sixth edition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on climate trends globally rang the alarm on the urgent need to limit the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius – or else face irreversible climate change impacts on heating, weather systems and ecosystems.

Critical to combatting climate change, it reported, was the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous people from around the world and indigenous-managed lands: home to rich biodiversity and ecosystems that form some of the world’s biggest carbon sinks today. 

Experts dubbed COP26 the best last chance to chart a pathway for global decarbonization and emissions reduction in line with the Paris Agreement to limit warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Assessments of its success at achieving these ambitious goals have been mixed. Developing nations and vulnerable island nations rue the lack of commitment on funding for loss and damage.

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On the other hand, rich countries have committed to doubling adaptation finance by 2025. Antonio-Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations reiterated the fact that the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal still remains alive, even if it requires hard work. Climate negotiators point to the successes of financial pledges to move funding away from fossil fuels towards renewables.  

The Glasgow Climate Pact, rising temperatures and India’s Eastern Himalayas

In many ways, The Glasgow Climate Pact drafted at COP26 fell short of the lofty ambitions of decarbonization and emissions reduction needed to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. India’s Eastern Himalayas, spread across the North East states, are already facing a 1.3 degree temperature rise, warming faster than the rest of the country, and is set to face increasing floods coupled with growing dry spells as the monsoon grows shorter, more intense and overall rainfall declines. For a primarily agricultural region, every single 0.1 degree counts.

Analysis by Climate Action Tracker places the world on a trajectory for 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming by the turn of the century, based on global targets set under the Glasgow Climate Pact. At current policies and action trajectories, however, temperatures are expected to rise by 2.9 degrees by the end of the century. Based on current policies and action trajectories, North East India will warm by 2.9 degrees half a century earlier in 2050.

Even with the projected reduced emissions and temperature rise, the region will face cataclysmic changes over the next few decades. The biggest change is expected to be in precipitation, already highly vulnerable. Studies by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) show that evapotranspiration is expected to increase by 4 to 10 times more than increases in rainfall. 

Most indigenous communities across the North East depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and most of them are smallholder farmers. The government’s recent climate vulnerability assessment report put high dependency on rainfed agriculture among one of the region’s biggest climate risks. Soil in the region is already highly depleted: 12.5% of the region’s land is desertified, especially among the hill states of the North East, barring Arunachal Pradesh.

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Much of this desertification is the result of intense rainfall, leading to the acidification of the soil. Rising temperatures – and the failure to successfully limit rising temperatures – will only exacerbate the problem of desertification, while leaving smallholder indigenous farmers with limited water resources to support their crops. An increasing number of news reports from Nepal show what the future holds in store for the region: rapid out-migration from rural areas, the loss of rural economies and indigenous cultures, greater stress on already stressed urban systems. 

Forests and people

On the positive side, the Glasgow Climate Pact is amongst the first to explicitly recognize the role that forests play in sequestering carbon, and the power of indigenous communities to manage the world’s biodiversity and by extension, its carbon-sequestering natural systems. 

The Glasgow Leaders Pledge on Forests and Land Use explicitly recognized the role of indigenous communities in managing forests, calling for support for smallholders, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, who depend on forests for their livelihoods and have a key role in their stewardship. 

The Global Forest Finance Pledge, signed by countries like the UK, USA, Canada, Germany and the EU pledged to mobilize $12 billion between 2021-2025 for forest protection & restoration finance explicitly putting indigenous communities first to ensure the benefits of restoration and protection reach them.

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A further pledge by a conglomeration of countries and major philanthropic foundation’s such as Jeff Bezos’ Earth Fund, the Ford Foundation and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation will mobilize $1.6 billion specifically to support the tenure rights of indigenous & local communities and their forest guardianship. 

India’s silence on the global stage regarding its 2015 commitment at Paris to create an additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5–3 GtCO2e through additional forest and tree cover by 2030 bodes ill. India was one of the few countries, as well, that refused to sign the Glasgow Leaders Pledge on Forests and Land Use, despite it being signed by deforestation hotspots like Brazil and Indonesia.

While the Paris Agreement target still remains binding, the distinct silence over the country’s forests raises worrying questions, particularly as the North East is one of India’s deforestation hotspots today. 

For North East India these pledges and formal recognition present new opportunities for communities to access the financial and capacity support required to effectively steward their forests in a changing climate scenario.

Declining forest area per 1000 in rural areas, in addition to rainfed agriculture, is one of the region’s other big climate vulnerability factors. With over 65% forest cover and nearly a quarter of India’s forest cover, as well as over 200 unique indigenous and ethnic communities, the financial support being mobilized under pledges made at COP26 can play a strong role in preserving these fragile and vulnerable carbon stocks.

Climate resilience – forests, agriculture, people

COP26 has offered impressive pledges and meek commitments. For India, greater clarity on its stance on its forests and the indigenous communities that depend on them is of utmost importance. For the rest of the world, closing greenwashing loopholes and acting to fulfill both pledges and commitments through clear, enforceable policies is critical: particularly policies to support indigenous communities on the frontlines and the forest resources & ecosystems they manage.

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Climate change is already here in North East India. Governments in the region must invest heavily in creating climate resilient, nature-regenerative economies by rewilding its forests and nurturing the transition to climate-resilient practices like agroforestry.

The region has over 2.3 million hectares of land that can be reforested, and a further 1.8 million hectares of agricultural land that can be rewilded through agroforestry, creating jobs for 2 million households. In states such as Arunachal Pradesh, which hold the vast reserves of India’s natural capital, the weighting of an ecological budget as the progenitor of the financial budget must provide the structure for fiscal decisions that align ecological and economic growth. 

COP26’s stasis must not guide the North East. The region must take the opportunities offered in financing and invest heavily in natural ecosystems to create climate resilience for its indigenous communities. It cannot afford not to. 

Ranjit Barthakur is Trustee and President of the Balipara Foundation, a social enterprise, and Chairman of FICCI’s North East Advisory Council. View are personal.

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