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Global Tree Cover Loss

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

  1. Forests are critical homes to plant and animal species. In turn, species that live within forests play an important role in maintaining forest health. Changes to forested habitats can lead to the extinction of the species that depend on them. With fewer species, the resilience of the entire food chain suffers. Failure to protect critical wildlife areas from deforestation means the loss of biodiversity and extinction of endangered species.
  2. Forests provide a natural solution for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Forests absorb and store carbon emissions caused by human activity, like burning fossil fuels, which include coal, natural gas and oil. Forests' ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere can be compromised by conversion into agricultural lands, commodity production, urbanization, disease and fires that cause forest loss. When a tree burns or decays, the carbon stored is released into the atmosphere further exacerbating climate change.
  3. Forests are critical to supplying clean and plentiful water around the world. Healthy forests filter water, reduce erosion, regulate rainfall, recharge groundwater tables and buffer against the impacts of droughts and floods. Coastal forests are especially important in providing protection from surges and are crucial breeding grounds for marine life. Deforestation compromises watershed health and increases risk of floods and drought. More frequent and severe forest fires, exacerbated by climate change, can pollute water supplies, reduce forest cover and devastate communities.

According to the UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation),

  1. Currently 11% of all carbon emissions stem from deforestation – more than emissions from all means of transport combined.
  2. Halting deforestation and forest degradation can avoid emissions of more than 5 gigatons CO2e/year.
  3. Forest conservation and restoration can provide more than one quarter of the emissions reductions needed in the next two decades.

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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