It is estimated that half of the forests that originally covered 48 percent of the Earth's land surface are gone.
The data, available on the Global Forest Watch platform managed by the World Resources Institute (WRI), shows that tropical countries lost 11.1 million hectares of tree cover in 2021, an area the size of Cuba. Of this total tree loss, 3.75 million hectares occurred in tropical primary forests, the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. Tropical forest loss remained consistently high in 2021 with no sign of slowing down, despite commitments by companies and governments to curb deforestation, according to new data from the University of Maryland.
This means the planet is not on its way to halting and reversing forest loss by 2030, as pledged by 141 countries during last year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, experts say. A handful of countries, most notably Indonesia and Gabon, saw their rates of primary forest loss decline significantly in recent years. But this was offset by high deforestation rates in other tropical countries, such as Brazil and Bolivia. As a result, the tropics still lost 10 football pitches of primary forest per minute in 2021, in the process releasing 2.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHG). That’s equivalent to the annual fossil fuel emissions from India.
The importance of forests for humanity
According to the UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation),
The causes for destruction and degradation of our forests
Agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation and forest degradation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity. Large-scale commercial agriculture (primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and palm oil) accounted for 40 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010, and local subsistence agriculture for another 33 percent.
What’s needed to achieve commitments to protect forests?
Though forest loss will need to decline much faster to meet 2030 zero-deforestation targets, there are reasons for hope. Indonesia’s rapid decrease in primary forest loss should be celebrated as a massive achievement that didn’t seem likely just five years ago. Achieving similar declines around the world won’t be easy. Indonesia and Malaysia will need to maintain momentum on protecting forests amid soaring oil palm prices; Brazil and other countries in the Amazon will need to tamp down on new deforestation hotspots; Congo Basin countries will need to ensure paths for development that safeguard forests; and Russia and other northern countries will need to combat the impacts of climate change on forests.
Thanks to the Glasgow Declaration, the world has a common goal to protect forests, and funding to back it up. The pathways to achieving these commitments are challenging but clear. Given the urgency to prevent runaway climate change and irreversible biodiversity loss, we need to rein in deforestation— before it’s too late.
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