From e-commerce to fuel, how forests can support a carbon-neutral future


Forests, in our imagination, are a space of peace and tranquility. It has been so for millennia. This is where our rishis went in search of spirituality. Even today, most of us are more concerned about the damage that humans can, will and will continue to cause to forests. Indeed, there is no reason to let our guard down about the need to protect our forests. However, we need to diversify our imaginations when thinking about the role forests can play in our future.

In recent years, debates around forests have focused on global priorities such as carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change, biodiversity conservation to prevent the ongoing mass extinction, and the myriad ecosystem services provided. by forests, such as the regulation of the water cycle. While all of these are important global and regional priorities, these debates have overlooked the myriad contributions that forests can make to a carbon-neutral future. As industry begins to seek substitutes for ingredients currently derived from fossil fuels, it is important to consider forests as an important source for the future supply of these substitutes. Here are some illustrations of how forests will contribute to the economy in the near future.

Bamboo and pine cones on charcoal

So-called hard-to-reduce sectors, such as cement and steel, have pledged to replace coal with alternative fuels derived from biomass. While much attention has been given to agricultural residues such as paddy straw, forest products such as bamboo and pine cones have much higher calorific values ​​and are therefore more attractive as alternatives. Bamboo is a fast growing species native to most of India. Growing bamboo as an industrial fuel not only replaces charcoal, but also sequesters large amounts of carbon above and below ground in areas where it is grown. Pine cones from Himalayan forests can be harvested without harming trees or forests.

Pine cones on bubble wrap for e-commerce logistics

Pinecones are also a great substitute for carbon-intensive packing materials – bubble wrap, air-filled plastic, shredded paper, and Styrofoam balls. Pine cones are designed by nature not only to be lightweight but also structured to maximize volume per unit weight. They are unbreakable and can be compressed without compromising their structural integrity.

Mahua Flowers on Corn and Sugar Cane for Ethanol Production

We’ve all heard of Mahua, the country liqueur made from the flowers of the Mahua tree. Alcohol is nothing but ethyl alcohol, better known as ethanol. Recently, the Indian government raised the ethanol blending mandate from 5% to 20%. We should consider Mahua flowers as a much more practical alternative to corn and sugarcane, with the added benefit of avoiding trade-offs between food security and fuel supply. The seeds of the Karanj or Pongamia tree contain oil that can be converted into biodiesel with very little processing. CSIR has already documented dozens of such species found in Indian forests. The vast expanse of our forest lands can provide a significant fraction of our transportation energy.

Natural gums and lacquer on paraffin

Another significant opportunity is natural substitutes for paraffin, a petroleum-derived substance widely found in our lives. One of its uses is to coat high-value fruits and vegetables to reduce moisture loss and dramatically increase shelf life. There are natural gums derived from common forest trees, such as certain Acacia species, which can be used as a paraffin substitute. Lake, harvested from forest trees like Palash and Kusum and traditionally used to make bangles, is another natural substitute to be used to coat fruits to protect them from moisture. Resin from Himalayan pines can serve similar purposes with appropriate modifications in processing and refinement.

Forests already contribute to local livelihoods through income from the sale of seasonal forest products. Many of these products – bamboo, mahua flowers, salt seeds and pine cones – are good candidates for a model of rural industrialization to meet the demands of the climate-smart, low-carbon economy. . This future forest economy presents a triple win-win opportunity; it’s good for the planet, people and profits.

Empower local communities

Such an economy must be based on good forest governance to ensure sustainability. Forests will be protected when people who live in or near forests will directly benefit. These benefits can be enhanced by providing local communities with the right incentives for sustainable management. The community forest resource rights provision of the Forest Rights Act presents such a mechanism. It allows ownership and management authority to be delegated to local communities, enabling them to reap the benefits of better forest management. This not only incentivizes protection, but also creates opportunities for forest restoration to increase these benefits.

Empowering Indian Entrepreneurs

Future industrial uses of forest products are ripe for investment in promoting entrepreneurship. Converting bamboo into fuel for cement kilns or distilling mahua flowers into ethanol must be undertaken by entrepreneurs who step in to literally create this new economy. These will be people who understand the local context and culture in order to build a successful business through partnerships with local communities and their federations. These enterprises will be an important link linking rural communities to industrial value chains. The forests of the future will support such a model of distributed industrialization while creating jobs in rural areas and promoting sustainable forest management. Such a vision is only possible if we reimagine forests as a place of production, beyond protection and conservation.

The author is Executive Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, ISB.

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