The rate at which the world’s forests are being destroyed has increased dramatically over the past year, with at least 42,000 km2 of tree cover lost in major tropical regions.
According to data from the University of Maryland and the online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, the loss was well above the average for the past 20 years, with 2020 being the third worst year for forest destruction since 2002, the date on which. which comparable monitoring has started.
Losses have been particularly severe in tropical rainforests, such as the Amazon, Congo and Southeast Asia. These forests are vital as carbon sinks in regulating the global climate, as well as for their irreplaceable ecosystems. Losses from this type of forest alone amounted to 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres), which is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of more than 575 million cars, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), which wrote the report.
A total of 12.2 million hectares of tree cover were lost in the tropics in 2020, an increase of 12% compared to 2019.
Brazil’s forest areas were the most disadvantaged, with 1.7 million hectares destroyed, an increase of about a quarter from the previous year. The fires have swept through the Amazon at a faster rate than the previous year, although the government has banned the use of fires to clear trees and deploying soldiers to curb the practice. Jair Bolsonaro’s government has presided over a massive increase in deforestation, after a long period of improvements to reduce destruction.
Frances Seymour, distinguished senior member of WRI, said: “Brazil has achieved a huge reduction in deforestation, but now we are witnessing the collapse of that success, and it is heartbreaking.
While the Amazon region has gained attention, scientists are also increasingly concerned about the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. It is estimated that around a third were affected by fires last year, with devastating effects on biodiversity. Most of the fires were started by people to manage land for agricultural purposes, but the region also experienced its worst droughts in over 40 years, and many fires continued to burn uncontrollably. The areas affected by these unprecedented fires will take decades to recover.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns around the world have not had a clear impact on patterns of forest loss, according to Rod Taylor, global director of the forestry program at WRI. “The data does not show systematic change,” he said.
However, there has been anecdotal evidence of people being forced to return to rural areas due to lockdowns and the deteriorating economic situation in cities, and that this could have a greater impact in the future, a- he declared.
Seymour said countries facing high debt levels due to the economic fallout from the pandemic might be tempted to give in to commercial interests to use their forests in unsustainable ways, or might be forced to reduce their resources for the forest protection.
“Unless we offer alternatives, it is likely that governments will try to recover from the loss of forests, [particularly] governments facing high debt levels, ”she said. “The longer we wait to tackle deforestation, the more likely it is that these carbon sinks will go up in smoke.”
Seymour cited some successes in tackling deforestation as evidence that strong policies with the necessary funding and government enforcement could reduce the rate of forest loss.
Deforestation is on the decline in Indonesia, which was dropped from the WRI top three countries list for primary forest loss for the first time. Tree loss in Indonesia in 2020 fell for the fourth year in a row, after peaking in 2016 after devastating forest and peat fires led the government to impose a moratorium on the logging of primary forest and the conversion of peatlands to agriculture while limiting licenses for oil palm plantations.
Malaysia, which has lost about a third of its primary forest since the 1970s, has also recently been successful in reducing deforestation, with stricter laws on illegal logging.
Richer countries are not immune to the loss of forests. In Germany, forest loss has tripled in 2020 compared to 2018. This increase is largely due to damage from bark beetles feeding on trees made vulnerable by the hot, dry weather brought by global warming . In Australia, tree cover loss has increased nine-fold over the past two years, largely due to extreme weather conditions and forest fires.
Climate degradation also worsens forest loss, as humid forests dry out, leading to tree deaths and longer fires, in a vicious cycle.
The UK, which will host the vital UN COP26 talks in November, is hosting a climate and development conference on Wednesday where rich countries will be invited to draw up plans to help the poorest countries. vulnerable to reduce their emissions and cope with the effects. of climate degradation. Activists hope to raise the issue of forest financing there.
“Forests must be on the agenda of Cop26,” said Seymour. “The world’s forests are still a huge carbon sink, and we must keep this carbon sequestered to avoid catastrophic climate change.”
Alok Sharma, President of Cop26, said rich countries must mobilize to help poor countries bear the brunt of climate change: “The people who have done the least to provoke the climate crisis are suffering the most. It is a staggering injustice. Developed countries therefore have a special responsibility to support the response of the most vulnerable communities to climate change. We’re running out of time. “