More than a hundred world leaders came to an agreement on 2 November to end and reverse deforestation by the year 2030.
The declaration, known as the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forest and Land Use, will aim to curb man-made greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the larger goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to 1.5 ℃.
China, Brazil, the UK, Turkey, and the US are some of the big countries that are now committed to "sustainable land use, and to the conservation, protection, sustainable management and restoration of forests, and other terrestrial ecosystems."
The prime minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, proudly said that "leaders have signed a landmark agreement to protect and restore the earth’s forests," as quoted by Reuters.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, is not one of those leaders.
India, despite having such a vocal presence at the COP26, with Prime Minister Modi setting five big climate goals for the country, has chosen to not be party to the Glasgow Declaration.
In fact, India is a part of the group of five G20 countries that did not include themselves in the agreement. The other four are Argentina, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Mexico.
Before we proceed to why the Indian delegation would have made such a decision, a closer look at the commitments of the declaration is warranted.
What Does the Declaration Promise?
The Glasgow Declaration has brought governments, investors, bankers and businesses (and other key actors) together to preserve the world's forests.
More than 100 global leaders, whose countries represent more than 85 percent of forests on the planet, have committed to reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030.
Some of the main countries have already been mentioned above. Others include Canada, Russia, and Colombia.
A lot of money is going to be invested in this endeavour. 12 countries have pledged to publicly finance the forest centred climate project with a commitment of £8.75 billion ($12 billion) between 2021 and 2025.
Private investment of £5.3 billion ($7.2 billion) is also a part of their commitment.
A significant chunk of the money will be allocated for the protection of the Congo Basin, which hosts the second-largest tropical rainforest on Earth.
Furthermore, financial institutions like Aviva and Axa have also been roped in into the agreement.
The Chief Executive Officers from more than 30 such institutions who own around $8.7 trillion of global assets have promised to terminate investing in and funding any projects that lead to deforestation.
Forest threatening trade of items like palm oil, cocoa and soya are also being subjected to scrutiny.
In the declaration, the signatory governments have pledged to adhere to a plan of action that will promote sustainable trade and ensure transparency of supply chains.
These moves are expected to relieve some of the stress that forests face in a rapidly developing and interconnected world.
If all of this looks optimistic on paper, why has an enthusiastic participant of COP26 like India chosen to stay on the sidelines of this declaration?
Why Did India Excuse Itself?
The official reason for India's rejection of the declaration seems to revolve around trade.
A representative of India said that the declaration "interlinks trade to climate change and forest issues."
"Trade falls under the WTO and should not be brought under climate change declarations. We had asked the word 'trade' to be removed, but they did not agree. So, we have not signed the declaration,” The Indian Express quoted the representative as saying.
The passage that he is referring to is the fourth paragraph of the declaration, that says that the signatories "recognise that to meet our land use, climate, biodiversity and sustainable development goals, both globally and nationally, will require transformative further action in the interconnected areas of sustainable production and consumption; infrastructure development; trade; finance and investment; and support for smallholders, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, who depend on forests for their livelihoods and have a key role in their stewardship."
However, there might be another factor in India's decision to excuse itself from the Glasgow Declaration, and that might be the Modi government's recent attempts to amend the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 (FCA).
In March earlier this year, the Government of India announced a move (albeit not public) to update the FCA.
Then, in the first week of October, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released a "consultative paper" that proposed certain changes to the act which would ensure exemptions for certain infrastructure project developers from approaching the GoI for authorisation to use forest land for commercial and industrial projects.
Therefore, the irony of India attending the COP26 but attempting to amend the FCA is that the raison d'être of the act is to deter projects that require land clearings via deforestation, something that the Glasgow Declaration is also trying to achieve.
The government is arguing that certain agencies like the railways and road ministries should not have to come running to the central government to seek permission regarding projects that could be of strategic importance, and of relevance to national security.
Activists, however, say that amending the FCA will allow industrial companies to take advantage of loopholes created by the amendment.
It is feared that these companies shall then use the loopholes for land projects whose first step is deforestation.
Considering that India has made some major carbon-pledges at COP26, like achieving net-zero by 2070, reducing total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes starting now till 2030 and reducing carbon intensity by 45 percent by 2030, the proposed amendments to the FCA and the decision to stay away from the Glasgow Declaration bring to notice some glaring contradictions.
Additionally, forests are considered to be a major type of carbon sink.
One should not forget that one of India’s three Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) before the COP26 was creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 by way of expanding forest cover by 2030.
In conclusion, on one hand, the central government is proposing anti-forest FCA amendments and the Indian delegation is not joining the Glasgow declaration.
While on the other hand, Prime Minister Modi is making ambitious promises on behalf of India about achieving carbon neutrality.
Looking at all these developments together, it is pertinent to ask, is Modi even trying to walk the talk?
(With inputs from BBC, The Indian Express, and Reuters)