The loss was less severe than in 2020, but deforestation is still occurring at an alarming rate in the tropics. Of the area lost, 3.75 million hectares of primary tropical forest — sometimes called pristine rainforests — was the equivalent of 10 soccer fields every minute, according to a WRI report.
Primary tropical forests in particular are essential to the planet’s ecological balance, providing life-supporting oxygen and biodiversity hotspots.
They are also rich in stored carbon, and when trees are cut down or these forests are burned, they release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. Destruction of primary tropical forest loss alone led to the emission of 2.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide last year, the equivalent of emissions from burning fossil fuels in India, which is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
“It’s important to understand that forests, especially tropical forests, are part of the global climate system,” Frances Seymour, a fellow at the World Resources Institute told CNN. “So they are not mechanical carbon storage devices, they actually affect the energy transfer and moisture content of the atmosphere in ways that affect precipitation, and they affect global circulation patterns.”
Fires are also playing an increasingly common role in the loss of tropical forests. Seymour said there is a complex effect between deforestation and climate change.
“When deforestation occurs, and when forests are lost, it not only contributes to atmospheric carbon, but also disrupts precipitation patterns and increases local temperatures in ways that, for example, make the remaining forests more vulnerable to fire, and the warmer and drier conditions that Come with climate change,” Seymour said.
The analysis looked primarily at tropical forests—which can be found in countries from Brazil to Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—because more than 96% of deforestation, or human-caused deforestation, occurs there.
The results were based on satellite images that assessed how tree cover has changed over time. Loss of tree cover or canopy in the tropics often means the destruction of the forest. In other countries, where logging is less common, this can mean the destruction of the treetops, as in the case of a fire, but the forest remains intact otherwise.
However, boreal forests – which are found in particularly cold climates, including in Russia, Canada and Alaska – experienced the highest loss of tree cover on record last year. More than 8 million hectares were lost, nearly a third more than in 2020.
This is largely because Russia has experienced particularly severe fires, losing 6.5 million hectares of tree cover.
These fires can cause what scientists call feedback loops, “where more fires lead to more carbon emissions, which leads to hotter, drier weather, which leads to more fires, etc.,” the analysis says.
In the tropics, more than 40% of forest losses occurred last year in Brazil. About 1.5 million hectares of forests in the country have been wiped off the map, mostly from the Amazon region. That’s more than three times that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which lost the second largest area of forest.
In Brazil, the main driver of deforestation is agricultural expansion, which increased by 9% between 2020 and 2021.
The WRI analysis warns that forest loss is pushing the Amazon towards a tipping point, where it will no longer be able to function as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, and could even become a net source of carbon dioxide. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world, and plays a critical role in biodiversity, climate regulation, and the provision of ecosystem services to the millions of people who live there.
If this tipping point is crossed, Seymour said, the world’s attempts to contain global warming to 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels – as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement – will “fade”.
Amid its realistic results, the analysis gave some reason for optimism. Indonesia and Malaysia, which have struggled for decades with deforestation, have seen a reduction in the amount of tree cover they lose annually for five consecutive years. In Indonesia, the amount of forest lost decreased by 25% last year.
This is a sign that corporate commitments and government actions are working, according to Hedaya Hamzah, Senior Director of Forestry and Peat Monitoring from WRI in Indonesia.
“This indicates that corporate commitments and government measures are clearly working,” she told reporters at a news briefing. Indonesia is on the right track to meet some of its climate commitments.
However, Malaysia has already lost a fifth of its primary tropical forests since 2001 and up to a third since the 1970s.
Hamzah added that Indonesia’s success is due in part to the government’s suspension of logging licenses for primary forests and peatlands, as well as improved fire control. Policy Called NDPE – no deforestation, no peatland, no exploitation – it now covers more than 80% of palm oil refining capacity in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s two largest oil exporters, and more than 80% of Indonesia’s pulp and paper industry.
But the World Resources Institute also warns that with palm oil prices at a 40-year high, these countries’ forests could come under increasing pressure. Indonesia also lifted a temporary freeze on new permits for palm oil plantations.
While there was an overall decrease in tree cover loss last year, the annual improvement is not consistent enough to meet global commitments, including a declaration signed by more than 140 countries at climate talks in Glasgow last year “to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030.” ”
Seymour also cautioned against over-reliance on forests to offset greenhouse gas emissions, saying companies and countries must use them to go beyond decarbonization efforts – by drastically reducing fossil fuel use – or to offset emissions that are impossible to reduce. current technology.
The aviation industry is one example, where carbon-neutral aviation technology does not yet exist on a large scale.
“So, yes, we want them to reduce those emissions as quickly as possible and invest in new technologies that allow for zero-carbon travel, but at the same time, they are ‘relentless’ emissions.” And offsetting those who buy carbon credits can provide a source of financing that we need strongly to spur protection of the world’s forests.”