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Forests -- Nature at Your Service: World Environment Day 2011, India

The United Nations Environment Programme has chosen India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world that is embracing the process of a transition to a Green Economy, as the first time ever global host of World Environment Day 2011 (WED - 2011).

This year's theme 'Forests: Nature at Your Service' emphasizes the intrinsic link between quality of life and the health of forests and forest ecosystems, and also supports this year's UN International Year of Forests. India is a country of 1.2 billion people who continue to put pressure on forests especially in densely populated areas where people are cultivating on marginal lands and where overgrazing is contributing to desertification.

But the Indian Government has also found solutions. While the socio-economic pressures on the country's forests are tremendous, India has instituted a tree-planting system to combat land-degradation and desertification, including windbreaks and shelterbelts to protect agricultural land. India has been ranked ninth in the tree planting roll of honour in a campaign to plant a billion trees, which was launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in November 2006. The country has registered 96 million trees. India, however, could be much higher in the ranking, according to UNEP officials who say that the country does not formally register or report all its campaigns.

In conserving its critical ecosystem, India has successfully introduced projects that track the health of the nation's plants, animals, water and other natural resources, including the Sunderbans - the largest deltaic mangrove forest in the world, and home to one of India's most iconic wildlife species: the tiger.

India has also launched a compensation afforestation programme under which any diversion of public forests for non-forestry purposes is compensated through afforestation in degraded or non-forested land. The funds received as compensation are used to improve forest management, protection of forests and of watershed areas. Moreover, a government authority has been created specifically to administer this programme.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "Over close to the 40-year history of WED, India's cities and communities have been among the most active with a myriad of events undertaken across the country each and every year—so it is only fitting that this rapidly developing economy is the host in 2011. India is famous for its culture, arts, movies and world-beating Information Technology industries. Increasingly it is at the forefront of some of the 'green shoots' of a Green Economy that are emerging across the globe." 

"From its manufacturing of solar and wind turbines to its Rural Employment Guarantee Act which underwrites paid work for millions of households via investments in areas ranging from water conservation to sustainable land management, foundations are being laid towards a fundamental and far reaching new development path," added Mr. Steiner.

This is underlined by India's introduction of the Clean Energy Fund into its national budget which provides subsidies for green technology and has been the basis for a National Action Plan on Climate Change which sets specific targets on issues such as energy efficiency and sustaining the Himalayan eco-system. India is currently planning one of the largest green energy projects in the world that will generate 20,000 megawatts of solar energy and 3,000 megawatts from wind farms on 50,000 acres in Karnataka in southwest India. The first phase of the US$50 billion project will start next year.

India is also emerging as a top destination for clean energy investment.In 2010, India attracted $4 billion in private investments, ranking 10th among the G-20 countries. It also ranked 10th for five-year growth rates for renewable energy capacity and seventh worldwide in the amount of installed capacity. With a target of deploying 20 gigawatts of solar generating capacity by 2020, the country is poised to further grow its share of this sector of the economy.

In its ground-breaking report on the Green Economy launched yesterday, UNEP cites India, where over 80 per cent of the US$8 billion National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which underwrites at least 100 days of paid work for rural households, invests in water conservation, irrigation and land development. This has generated three billion working days worth of employment benefiting close to 60 million households.

The implementation of the mechanism of REDD in India is also on the anvil. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, India’s forests sequester approximately 24,000 metric tons of CO2 worth Rs. 6,00,000 crores. Increases in cost of carbon are going to push that amount up even more.

Sustainable development will only evolve if we join up the dots and realize that only by bringing together economic, social and environmental challenges as a whole—and in a way that reflects the new imperative and new knowledge of a new century, says Achim Steiner. He adds that if the 20th century was the industrial age, the 21st century will be a biological age of constraints and opportunities.