A 2018 special report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed the integral role of ending deforestation in holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In a statement, the UN’s environment, development, and agriculture chiefs declared that “forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change – thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests could provide up to 30%of the climate solution.”
Despite the enormous benefits of trees on our planet, reports show that they are increasingly being destroyed. The world is losing tree cover at an alarming rate, leading to more destructive impacts on our environment. While the losses of tropical tree cover are down from 2016 and 2017, experts said that there’s still a gradual increase since record-keeping began in 2001. Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institue (WRI), said that we are nowhere near winning in stopping forest loss.
“It’s really tempting to celebrate a second year of decline since peak tree cover loss in 2016, but if you look back over the last 18 years, it’s clear that the overall trend is still upward,” Seymour said.
A 43% Increase in Global Tree Cover Loss
Forests play a huge role in storing carbon and providing habitat for millions of species and resources for people. But, the continued deforestation and human-induced wildfires are risking the efforts to stabilize the global loss. Seymour said that there is likely a species that’s 1 inch closer to extinction for every area of forest loss, and for every area of forest loss, there is likely a family that has lost access to an important part of their daily income from hunting, gathering, and fishing.
In 2014, the New York declaration on forests was signed at the UN which required countries to halve deforestation by 2020. According to Global Landscapes and Forum, the world's largest knowledge-led platform on integrated land use, the nations committed to restoring 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forestlands by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. However, since the declaration happened, the rate of tree cover loss has increased by 43%.
The most affected are the most valuable and irreplaceable tropical primary forests which have been cut down at a rate of 4.3m hectares a year. A 2019 report showed that the current rate of loss has reached 26m hectares (64m acres) a year. “While the political will to restore degraded land has increased, efforts to implement restoration promises have been slow to gain traction,” the report said.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the annual rate of tree cover loss increased markedly between 2014 and 2018 in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa compared with 2001 to 2013. Of the 10 countries with the highest absolute amounts of tropical primary forest loss on average, four are in Latin America (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru), three in Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia), two in Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar), and one in Oceania (Papua New Guinea).
Experts also warned that global heating in recent years has dried out many of the world’s forests. They fear feedback loops because they amplify the impacts of heating. For instance, climate change dries out trees, making them more flammable. The increasing global temperatures would make them more flammable, contributing more to carbon dioxide, which fuels heating. And we are not doing enough to save these forests. A systematic global literature review found that there is an insufficient restoration of natural forests, where only 18% of the 2020 forest landscape restoration goals are documented to have undergone forest restoration since 2000.
“This natural sink provided by forests is at risk from the duel compounding threats of further deforestation and future climate change. The continued loss of primary forests, at ever-increasing rates, despite their incalculable value and irreplaceability, is both shocking and tragic,” Jo House, a reader in environmental science and policy at the University of Bristol, said.
Agriculture Continues to Drive Tree Cover Loss
From 2001 to 2018, tree cover loss was led by commodity-driven deforestation, including illegal land grabbing for pastureland to raise cattle. According to Global Forest Watch, an online site that catalyzes conversations around improved forest management by providing timely, credible analysis on threats to global forests, commodity-driven deforestation makes way for activities like agriculture, mining, and oil and gas production. This is mainly due to the increasing demand from people who rely on production and sourcing of global commodities like palm oil, soy, beef, and more. Previous studies revealed that commodity production is responsible for an average of five million hectares of deforestation per year.
New data from the WRI and The Sustainability Consortium found out, however, that the primary culprit of global tree cover loss is now agriculture. Nancy Harris, an author of the original study and Research Director of the Forest Program at WRI, said that the findings show that they only made a little progress in addressing the major drivers of tree loss. “The updated data show that for most of the world, the dominant drivers of tree cover loss have remained relatively unchanged since our original 2001-2015 analysis,” she said.
According to Mongabay, a nonprofit provider of conservation and environmental science news, almost half of total loss in the tropical countries was driven by agricultural activities such as deforestation for oil palm plantations, cattle grazing, and other commercial commodities. The expansion of small-scale farming is also a huge contributor. In 2018, Columbia lost 200,000 hectares (almost 500,000 acres) due to the expanding small-scale agriculture and commodity-driven deforestation.
Unfortunately, Columbia’s deforestation for commodity production has no signs of stopping. WRI reported that weekly deforestation alerts for 2019 and early 2020 showed continued deforestation into the northwest Colombian Amazon between Tinigua, La Macarena and Chiribiquete national parks; the western sector of the Chiribiquete park expansion zone; and the northwestern segment of Nukak National Natural Reserve.
Also, traditional shifting cultivation systems are the main form of agricultural production in many tropical regions. Thailand, for instance, reported an increased forest loss driven by intensification of agriculture. More traditional methods of subsistence farming were observed in the country with diverse crops being replaced by large-scale commodity production. “In the coming years we will be watching closing to see if this trend plays out in other locations, like Western Africa,” Harris said.