While carbon emissions have declined with the pandemic, deforestation continues at a faster rate than ever. The area of virgin tropical forest destroyed in 2020 is equivalent to the size of the Netherlands: trees blown up in smoke or felled by humans at an ever-increasing rate, despite the economic crisis linked to Covid-19.
The tropics lost 12.2 million ha of tree cover in 2020. Of that, 4.2 mil ha – an area the size of the Netherlands – occurred within tropical primary #rainforests. Learn more on the #GlobalForestReview https://t.co/DtWavoMOFX @UMD_GLAD pic.twitter.com/RokaK1QaYb
— Global Forest Watch (@globalforests) March 31, 2021
The annual Global Forest Watch report, based on satellite data, recorded the destruction in 2020 of 4.2 million hectares of tropical primary forests, crucial for the planet’s biodiversity and carbon storage, or 12%. more than the previous year.
The country most affected is Brazil, with an area missing three times that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, second in the ranking. In total, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of forest cover (which includes all types of forests and plantations) in 2020.
Agriculture, the main driver of deforestation
Not surprisingly, the main driver of this destruction is still agriculture. But researchers are also pointing fingers this year at the heat waves and drought that fueled devastating fires in Australia, Siberia and to the far reaches of the Amazon.
These losses are “a climate emergency, a biodiversity crisis, a humanitarian catastrophe and lost economic opportunities,” commented Frances Seymour, of the World Resources Institute, which is piloting this report. According to the researchers, the pandemic may have had some negative impacts, with illegally felled trees in forests left unprotected, for example, or the massive arrival of people in rural areas.
But they stress above all that this crisis has not made it possible to change the trajectory of forest destruction and they warn against a worsening of the situation in the event of relaxation of the rules to facilitate economic recovery.
“Nature cries out”
In addition, the “worst omen” part of the 2020 data shows that the forests themselves have been victims of climate change, Frances Seymour said at a press conference. “Wetlands are burning (…). Nature had been whispering to us for a while that the threat was coming. Now she is screaming, ”she insisted.
Very rich forest ecosystems cover more than 30% of the earth’s surface and tropical forests are home to between 50 and 90% of terrestrial species. Along with the rest of the vegetation and soils, forests are also a huge carbon sink, absorbing about a third of the CO2 emitted by human activities each year. But their disappearance continues inexorably.
The roughly 4 million hectares of tropical forests destroyed in 2020 released 2.64 gigatons of CO2, equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars. “The longer we wait to stop deforestation, (…) the more our natural carbon sinks risk going up in smoke,” warned Frances Seymour.
Slow destruction in Indonesia
In Brazil, where deforestation has steadily increased since Jair Bolsonaro came to power, primary forest lost another 1.7 million hectares in 2020, an increase of 25% in one year, according to the report.
Most of this destruction has hit the Amazon, with deliberate deforestation but also out of control fires, starting from burns on already deforested land that have spread.
The fire also ravaged the wetlands of the Pantanal, a biodiversity paradise between Brazil and Bolivia, which is on the third step of this 2020 ranking of tropical deforestation.
Indonesia, on the other hand, managed to reduce the rate of its deforestation by 17% compared to 2019, stepping off the podium for the first time since the first Global Forest Watch report twenty years ago.
Forest destruction is slowing down in the country for the fourth consecutive year, according to the researchers, who point to a year 2020 of wetter weather but also public policies that seem to have “a long-term impact to reduce the disappearance of the forest”.
According to a study published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the growing appetite of rich countries for various agricultural products like coffee and soybeans has accelerated the rate of deforestation in the tropics.