Satellite data shows 3.75 million hectares of tree cover, or 10 football pitches a minute, disappeared across primary tropical forests in 2021
28 April 2022
Destruction of the world’s remaining intact forests continued in 2021 at a rate barely changed in recent years, despite more than 100 countries at the COP26 climate summit pledging to end deforestation this decade.
Around 3.75 million hectares of tree cover disappeared across intact or “primary” humid tropical forests in 2021, new satellite data from Global Forest Watch shows. This equates to the area of 10 football pitches a minute. Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute (WRI) with partners including the University of Maryland, estimates that this tropical forest loss released 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon emissions – on a par with India’s annual emissions.
Much of last year’s logging and burning in these forests happened ahead of the promise at the summit in the UK last November to halt deforestation by 2030, so the new figures could act as a baseline. But Mikaela Weisse at the WRI says tropical forest loss has been consistently high in recent years, suggesting the new target will be challenging: “2030 is going to come really fast. We will need to see very dramatic declines across the board if we want to get to zero by then,” she says.
Brazil, where exploitation of the Amazon rainforest is expected to be a big issue in the country’s general election this October, accounted for two-fifths of the planet’s vanishing tropical primary forest last year. An area of 1.5 million hectares was lost in Brazil, down slightly on the figure for 2020. However, losses unrelated to fires were up, which is usually a sign of agricultural expansion. Scientists recently warned the Amazon is nearing a tipping point that could see it transform into savannah.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, where poverty is a leading driver of deforestation, had the second highest tropical forest clearances, at 0.5 million hectares. Bolivia saw its highest loss rate in 19 years of modern satellite records, at 0.3 million hectares. “Bolivia [has] a left-leaning government supposed to be championing indigenous rights,” says Matthew Hansen at the University of Maryland. “[But it’s] just giving away all these forests [for agriculture] to Argentines, Brazilians and Mennonites.”
One bright spot is Indonesia, where primary tropical forest loss fell by a quarter on 2020 levels, marking the fifth year in a row of declining rates. However, Liz Goldman at the WRI cautions that corporate commitments on deforestation-free palm oil and government policies will face pressure from 40-year price highs for palm oil. On 22 April, Indonesia announced a surprise ban on exports of some palm oil products that caused prices of all edible oils to rise.
Last year also saw a record amount of tree cover loss in the boreal forests that span the globe’s northern latitudes. More than 8 million hectares of boreal forest was lost, much of it burned in Russia as the country faced its worst wildfires in modern records due to a prolonged and intense heatwave. Goldman says fires in the far north are part of the ecological cycle there and, unlike in the tropics where forest loss is usually permanent, the tree cover is likely to grow back. Nonetheless, she says the huge amounts of carbon released are very concerning.
A United Nations agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, is expected to publish a major report next week on the state of forests globally and how much eradicating deforestation could contribute to the world’s climate goals.
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