The rate at which the world’s forests are being destroyed dramatically increased last year, with at least 42,000 square kilometers of forest cover lost in key tropical regions.
According to data from the University of Maryland and online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, the loss was well above the 20-year average, with 2020 being the third worst year for forest destruction since 2002 when comparable monitoring began. .
Losses were particularly severe in humid tropical primary forests, 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 compiled the report.
In total, 12.2 million hectares of tree cover were lost in the tropics in 2020, a 12% increase over 2019.
Brazil’s forested areas fared worse, with 1.7 million hectares destroyed, an increase of about a quarter from the previous year. The fires swept through the Amazon at a faster rate than the previous year, despite the government imposing a ban on the use of fires to cut down 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 in reducing destruction.
Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior researcher at WRI, said: “Brazil had achieved a huge reduction in deforestation, but now we are seeing it undo that success, and it is heartbreaking.”
While the Amazon region has drawn attention, scientists are also increasingly concerned about Brazil’s 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 the land for agriculture, but the region has also had its worst droughts in more than 40 years, and many fires continued unchecked. The areas affected by these unprecedented fires will take decades to recover.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns around the world had no clear impact on patterns of forest loss, according to Rod Taylor, global director of the WRI’s forests program. “The data does not show a systematic change,” he said.
However, there has been anecdotal evidence of people forced to return to rural areas by closures and the worsening economic situation in cities, and that this could have a greater impact in the future, he said.
Seymour said that the countries that faced high levels of debt Due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, you could be tempted to give in to commercial interests to exploit your forests unsustainably, or you could be forced to cut resources for forest protection.
“Unless we offer alternatives, governments are likely to try to recover due to the loss of forests, [particularly] governments facing high levels of debt, ”he said. “The longer we wait to tackle deforestation, the more likely these carbon sinks are to go up in smoke.”
Seymour pointed to some success stories in tackling deforestation as proof that strong policies coupled with the necessary funding and government enforcement could reduce the rate of forest loss.
Deforestation is declining in Indonesia, which for the first time has been removed from the WRI’s list of the three countries with the highest loss of primary forests. Tree loss in Indonesia in 2020 fell for the fourth year in a row, below a peak in 2016 after devastating forest and peat fires prompted the government to impose a moratorium on cutting down primary forests and converting peatlands into agriculture, while restricting licenses for oil palm plantations.
Malaysia, which has lost about a third of its primary forest since the 1970s, has also recently managed to reduce deforestation, with stricter laws on illegal logging.
The richest countries are not immune to forest loss. In Germany, forest loss tripled in 2020 compared to 2018. The increase was largely due to damage from bark beetles feeding on trees made vulnerable by hot and dry weather caused by global warming. Australia experienced a nine-fold increase in tree cover loss over the past two years, largely due to extreme weather conditions and wildfires.
Climate degradation is also worsening forest loss, with rainforests drying out, causing trees to die and fires to burn longer, in a vicious cycle.
On Wednesday, the UK, which will host the vital UN COP26 talks this November, will hold a conference on climate and development in which rich nations will be asked to come up with plans to help the most vulnerable countries. to reduce emissions and deal with the effects. of climate collapse. Activists hope to raise the issue of forest finance there.
“Forests should be on the Cop26 agenda,” said Seymour. “The world’s forests remain a huge carbon sink, and we must keep that carbon sequestered to avoid catastrophic climate change.”
Alok Sharma, president of Cop26, said rich countries must step up to help poor nations that are bearing the brunt of climate collapse: “The people who have done the least to cause the climate crisis are the ones who suffer the most. . This is a terrible injustice. Therefore, developed countries have a particular responsibility to support the response of the communities that are most vulnerable to climate change. We’re running out of time.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism