Tropical forests around the world were being destroyed at an increasing pace in 2020 compared to the previous year, despite the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, which reduced the demand for some commodities that have historically fueled deforestation.
According to the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based research group, the loss of primary tropical forests with old growth, which plays a vital role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and preserving biodiversity, increased by 12 percent in 2020 from 2019 reports annually on the topic.
In total, more than 10 million hectares of tropical primary forest were lost in 2020, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The institute’s analysis found that losing so much forest to the atmosphere added more than two and a half billion tons of carbon dioxide, or about twice as much as cars spit in the air each year in the US.
“We are still losing primary forest at an unacceptable rate,” said Rod Taylor, global director of the institute’s forest program. “A year-on-year increase of 12 percent is too much if the trend should ease.”
Brazil was once again the world leader in forest loss by a wide margin, as the country’s pro-development policies, Jair Bolsonaro, resulted in continued widespread deforestation. Heavy forest losses were also reported in Cameroon in West Africa. And in Colombia, losses rose again last year after a promising decline in 2019.
Indonesia and Malaysia were rare rays of hope, with forest loss declining from 2019 onwards. For Indonesia, 2020 was the fourth year in a row, a sign that the government has successfully tried to halt deforestation after a terrible fire season in 2015.
As in previous years, according to the institute, most of the forest loss in the tropics was caused by agriculture, either through the production of raw materials such as palm oil and cocoa or through subsistence efforts by small farmers. In both cases, the forests are usually cleared and the debris is burned to prepare the fields. Often times, these fires can get out of hand, leading to greater forest loss, and the warming and drying up caused by climate change can make the situation even worse.
Most of the forest loss in Brazil occurred as in the Amazon rainforest for years. But this year the Pantanal, the vast wetland region in the south of the country that also includes parts of Bolivia and Paraguay, has contributed significantly to the losses. The region experienced a historic drought made worse by climate change, resulting in a severe fire season with 16 times more forest losses in 2020 than the previous year.
Frances Seymour, Senior Fellow at the institute, said what happened in the Pantanal was just one example of the increasing role global warming played in forest loss. “The most threatening signal from the 2020 data is the number of times forests themselves have become victims of climate change,” she said. “Nature has long whispered this risk to us, but now it screams.”
Last year, individual reports from Brazil and elsewhere suggested that deforestation increased due to the pandemic as the health crisis hampered governments’ efforts to enforce clear-cutting bans and workers who lost their jobs due to the downturn moved to cities to farm rural areas. But Mr Taylor said the analysis showed “no apparent systemic shift” in forest loss as a result of the pandemic.
If anything, the crisis and the resulting global economic downturn should have resulted in less overall forest loss as demand and prices for palm oil and other commodities declined. While falling demand may have helped improve the situation in Indonesia and some other countries, Ms. Seymour said that it is “amazing worldwide that in a year when the world economy contracted between 3 and 4 percent, primary forest loss was up 12 percent increased. ”
She said the world has not yet seen the largest impact of the pandemic on forests, “which will likely come into play when economies begin to recover.”
The concern is that governments facing deficits “will be tempted to cut law enforcement budgets and approve new investment projects that could lead to more forest loss,” she said. “If we don’t offer alternatives, the government will probably try to get its economy going again on the back of the forests.”
The data for the report was provided by scientists at the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery Laboratory who developed methods of analyzing satellite imagery to determine forest cover. The World Resources Institute refers to its results as “loss of forest cover” rather than “deforestation” because the analysis includes trees that have been lost to plantations and does not distinguish between trees that have been lost to human activity and trees that are lost through natural causes.