An area of virgin rainforest the size of the Netherlands was burned down or blown down last year, as destruction of the world’s rainforests accelerated despite a global economic downturn, according to a study on Wednesday.
The worst losses were recorded in Brazil, three times higher than the second highest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a Global Forest Watch report based on satellite data.
Across the tropics, the study recorded the destruction in 2020 of 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres) of primary forest – 12 percent more than the previous year.
Ecosystems straddling the equator support abundant biodiversity and store large amounts of carbon.
In total, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of tree cover – including forests and plantations – last year, largely through agriculture.
But the researchers said the extreme heat and drought also fueled huge fires that devastated swathes of forest across Australia, Siberia and deep into the Amazon.
These losses are a “climate emergency.” It is a biodiversity crisis, a humanitarian catastrophe and a loss of economic opportunity, ”said Frances Seymour of the World Resources Institute, which originated the report.
The study found evidence that Covid-19 restrictions may have had an effect around the world – with an increase in illegal harvesting because forests have been left less protected, or the return of large numbers of people in rural areas.
But researchers said there were few signs the pandemic had changed the trajectory of forest destruction and warned that the worst could still happen if countries cut protections in a bid to accelerate economic growth.
But Seymour said the “most disturbing signal” in the 2020 data is the case of the forests themselves being victims of climate change.
“I mean, the wetlands are burning,” she said during a press briefing.
“Nature has been whispering this risk to us for a long time. But now she is screaming. ”
Plants – especially in the tropics – and soil are a huge carbon sink, absorbing about a third of all the carbon pollution humans produce each year.
Yet tropical forests continue to rapidly disappear, threatening irreparable loss to Earth’s crucial biodiversity.
Researchers said the destruction of tropical primary forests in 2020 released 2.64 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2020, equivalent to India’s annual emissions or 570 million cars, more than double the number on the road in the United States.
“The longer we wait to stop deforestation and bring other sectors onto net zero trajectories, the more likely it is that our natural carbon sinks will go up in smoke,” Seymour said.
– ‘Heartbreaking’ –
Brazil, where far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has cut funding for environmental programs and pushed to open up Amazon protected lands to agribusiness and mining, has lost 1.7 million hectares of primary forest in 2020, an increase of 25% compared to 2019, according to the report.
“Brazil, having achieved a dramatic reduction in deforestation in the Amazon, now sees a collapse of that success, and it’s heartbreaking,” Seymour said.
Much of the loss has occurred in the Amazon, including new areas that have been purposely cleared.
But the dry conditions also meant that fires started on previously deforested land spread to once humid forests, burning uncontrollably.
The fires have also devastated wetlands in the Pantanal, a biodiversity paradise stretching from Brazil to Bolivia – the country with the third highest level of forest loss in 2020.
Almost a third of the Pantanal has been burnt, including native land and jaguar habitat, and researchers said it could be decades before the region recovers.
– Appetite for destruction –
One bright spot was Indonesia, which reduced its rate of forest loss by 17 percent from 2019 and left the world’s top three for the first time in 20 years of Global Forest Watch monitoring.
Forest destruction has slowed for four consecutive years in Indonesia, and researchers said government policies – helped last year by wetter weather – appeared to have “a long-term effect on reducing primary forest loss. “.
Forests cover over 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface, and tropical forests are home to between 50 and 90 percent of all terrestrial species.
Recent research has shown that beyond a certain threshold, deforestation in the Amazon basin could tip the region into a new climate regime, turning tropical forests into savannah.
In January, two senior Brazilian indigenous leaders called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Bolsonaro for “crimes against humanity”, accusing him of unprecedented environmental damage, murder and persecution.
On Monday, a study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution estimated that growing demand in wealthy countries for products ranging from coffee to soybeans was accelerating deforestation in the tropics.
© 2021 AFP