Fires deforestation

Climate Change: Deforestation on the Rise Despite Commitments

New research reveals that tree losses escalated dramatically, resulting in the loss of tropical forest equivalent to the size of Switzerland over the past year.

The recent findings indicate that the political commitment made by world leaders at COP26 to halt deforestation is significantly off track. Shockingly, approximately 11 football pitches of forest were lost every minute in 2022, with Brazil being the primary driver behind this destruction.

The notable decrease in forest loss in Indonesia serves as evidence that reversing this troubling trend is indeed possible. At the COP26 climate meeting in 2021, a pivotal moment unfolded when more than 100 world leaders signed the Glasgow Declaration on forests. In this landmark declaration, they pledged to collaboratively work towards “halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

Estimated global deforestation since 2015-2030

The Glasgow Declaration garnered signatures from leaders representing countries that account for approximately 85% of the world’s forests. Surprisingly, even former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who had previously eased the enforcement of environmental laws to permit development in the Amazon rainforest, was among the signatories. This pact was reached following a previous agreement signed in 2014 that unfortunately failed to halt the continuous loss of trees.

A recent analysis conducted by Global Forest Watch reveals that the commitment made in Glasgow is not being upheld. The losses of tropical primary (old-growth) forests are especially concerning due to their significant impact on global warming and biodiversity. The rainforests in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia play a crucial role in absorbing substantial amounts of greenhouse gases.

Clearing or burning these mature forests releases stored carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the global rise in temperatures. Additionally, these forests play a vital role in preserving biodiversity and supporting the livelihoods of millions of people. Scientists caution that these crucial functions, often referred to as “ecosystem services,” cannot be easily replaced by planting trees elsewhere, as these forests have evolved over an extended period of time.

The latest data, compiled by the University of Maryland, reveals that the tropics experienced a 10% increase in the loss of primary rainforest in 2022 compared to 2021. A staggering total of just over 4 million hectares (nearly 16,000 square miles) of rainforest was either felled or burned during this period. This devastation resulted in the release of a volume of carbon dioxide equivalent to India’s annual fossil fuel emissions.

Rod Taylor from the World Resources Institute (WRI), which oversees the Global Forest Watch, expressed concern over the trajectory of deforestation. He stated:

“The question is, are we on track to halt deforestation by 2030? And the short answer is a simple no.”

President Lula and his environment minister have promised to end deforestation in Brazil
President Lula and his environment minister have promised to end deforestation in Brazil

According to their analysis, global deforestation in 2022 exceeded the required level by over 1 million hectares to achieve zero deforestation by 2030, indicating that the world is significantly off track and heading in the wrong direction.

Brazil continues to be the primary driver behind the losses of primary tropical forest, with a staggering increase of over 14% recorded in 2022. The situation is particularly alarming in Amazonas state, which houses over half of Brazil’s intact forests, as the rate of deforestation has nearly doubled in the past three years.

Bucking the trend

Although the overall situation may seem concerning, there are some encouraging signs that demonstrate the possibility of curbing deforestation. Notably, Indonesia has made significant strides in reducing its primary tropical forest loss, outperforming other countries. Since reaching an all-time high in 2016, Indonesia has made commendable progress in this regard.

The analysis indicates that these positive developments are the result of combined efforts by both the government and corporations in these countries. In Indonesia, a significant step was taken in 2019 when a permanent moratorium on logging in new palm oil plantations was put in place. Furthermore, efforts to monitor and control fires have been intensified. A similar trend is observed in Malaysia, where oil palm corporations have taken action, with approximately 83% of palm oil refining capacity now operating under commitments of no deforestation, no peatland exploitation, and no exploitation of labor.

Indonesia has stepped up fire monitoring and restricted new palm plantations
Indonesia has stepped up fire monitoring and restricted new palm plantations

In 2022, Bolivia, one of the few countries that did not sign the Glasgow Declaration, experienced a sharp surge in forest losses, witnessing an increase of almost one-third within a year. Researchers attribute commodity agriculture as the primary driver of this trend. Specifically, the expansion of soybean cultivation has led to nearly a million hectares of deforestation in Bolivia since the beginning of the 21st century.

Despite having only a small portion of primary forest remaining, Ghana in West Africa experienced a significant 71% surge in forest losses in 2022, primarily occurring in protected areas. These losses were in close proximity to existing cocoa farms, raising concerns about the impact on the environment.

On a positive note, with Brazil’s new president pledging to halt deforestation in the Amazon by 2030, there is renewed optimism that the commitments made during the Glasgow conference in 2021 may see more successful outcomes in the years ahead.

The researchers stress that if the world aims to limit global temperatures within the critical 1.5C threshold, there is a pressing need for immediate action concerning forests.

“There’s an urgency to achieve a peak and decline in deforestation, even more urgent than the peak and decline in carbon emissions,” stated Rod Taylor from WRI.

He emphasized that once forests are lost, their recovery becomes extremely challenging, rendering them irrecoverable assets.

Top countries for primary tropical forest loss

How is deforestation measured?

Monitoring the loss of tree cover can be done relatively easily by analyzing satellite images, although determining the exact year of tree loss may sometimes be uncertain. On the other hand, measuring deforestation, which generally pertains to the permanent removal of natural forest cover caused by human activities, is more complex. This is because not all instances of tree-cover loss qualify as deforestation.

For instance, losses resulting from fire, disease, or storms, as well as those occurring within sustainable production forests, typically would not be considered as deforestation. However, there are challenges in accurately categorizing these events. For example, some fires might be deliberately ignited to clear a forest, rather than being natural occurrences.

To arrive at an estimate for deforestation, scientists make an effort to account for all these factors and consider their impact on forest cover changes.

The most recent data indicates an increase of approximately 3.6% in global deforestation caused by human activities in 2022 compared to 2021, which goes against the commitments made in Glasgow. Surprisingly, although losses of critical primary tropical forests rose by nearly 10% in 2022, the overall global tree cover loss, resulting from all causes, actually decreased by nearly 10%.

However, researchers clarify that the reduction in tree cover losses from all causes in 2022 was primarily due to a decrease in losses from forest fires. This is not considered a part of a long-term trend. In fact, tree cover losses from fires have been on the rise over the last two decades, and experts predict that fires will become more frequent in the future due to climate change and changes in land use.

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