The loss was less severe than in 2020, but deforestation continues at an alarming rate in the tropics. Of the area lost, 3.75 million hectares was primary rainforest – sometimes called virgin rainforest – at the equivalent of 10 football pitches per minute, WRI reported.
Primary rainforests in particular are crucial to the planet’s ecological balance, providing life-sustaining oxygen and as biodiversity hotspots.
They are also rich in stored carbon, and when these forests are logged or burned, they release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. The destruction of primary rainforest alone emitted 2.5 gigatonnes of CO2 last year, which is comparable to emissions from burning fossil fuels in India, which is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. greenhouse in the world.
“What’s important to understand is that forests, especially rainforests, are part of the global climate system,” Frances Seymour told CNN. “So they’re not mechanical carbon storage devices, they actually influence the energy transfer and the moisture content of the atmosphere in a way that affects precipitation, that affects global circulation patterns.”
Fires are also playing an increasingly important role in the disappearance of tropical forests. Seymour said there is a cumulative effect between deforestation and climate change.
“When deforestation occurs, when forests are lost, not only do they contribute carbon to the atmosphere, but they also disrupt rainfall patterns and increase local temperatures in ways that, for example, make remaining forests more vulnerable to fire, and the hotter, drier conditions that come with climate change,” Seymour said.
The analysis focused primarily on tropical forests – found in countries ranging from Brazil to Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – because more than 96% of deforestation, or removal of forest cover by humans, occurs there.
The results were based on satellite imagery that assessed how tree cover changed over time. A loss of tree cover, or canopy, in the tropics often means that the forest has been destroyed. In other countries, where logging is less common, this may mean that the treetops are destroyed, as in the case of a fire, but the forest remains otherwise intact.
Nevertheless, boreal forests – which are found in particularly cold climates, including Russia, Canada and Alaska – saw their greatest loss of tree cover on record last year. More than 8 million hectares were lost, an increase of almost a third compared to 2020.
This is largely because Russia has experienced particularly severe fires, losing 6.5 million hectares of forest cover.
These fires can cause what scientists call feedback loops, “in which increased fires lead to more carbon emissions, which leads to hotter and drier weather, which leads to more fires, etc. .”, says the analysis.
In the tropics, more than 40% of forest loss last year occurred in Brazil. About 1.5 million hectares of forest in the country have been wiped off the map, mostly from the Amazon. It is more than three times the DRC, which has lost the second largest area of forest.
If Amazon hits tipping point, climate targets will ‘blow out of the water’
In Brazil, one of the main drivers 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 can no longer serve as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks and could even become a net emitter of CO2. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and it plays a crucial role in biodiversity, climate regulation and the provision of ecosystem services to the millions of people who live there.
If that tipping point is passed, the world’s attempts to contain global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – as envisioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement – would be “blown”, said Seymour.
Amid its sobering conclusions, the analysis gave some reason for optimism. Indonesia and Malaysia, which have battled rampant deforestation for decades, have both seen a reduction in the amount of tree cover they lose each year for five consecutive years. In Indonesia, the amount of forest lost fell by 25% last year.
It’s a sign that corporate commitments and government actions are working, according to Hidayah Hamzah, WRI’s senior forest and peat monitoring officer in Indonesia.
“This indicates that corporate commitments and government actions are clearly working,” she told reporters at a press briefing. “Indonesia is moving in the right direction to meet some of its climate commitments.”
Malaysia, however, has already lost a fifth of its primary rainforest since 2001 and up to a third since the 1970s.
Hamzah added that Indonesia’s success was due in part to the government’s moratorium on logging permits for primary forests and peatlands, as well as improved fire monitoring. A typeface called NDPE – No Deforestation, No Peatland, No Exploitation – now covers more than 80% of palm oil refining capacity in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are the world’s largest oil exporters, and more than 80% pulp and paper industry in Indonesia.
But the WRI also warns that with palm oil prices hitting their highest level in 40 years, forests in these countries could come under increasing pressure. Indonesia also lifted a temporary freeze on new permits for oil palm plantations.
Although there was an overall reduction in forest 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 the talks. climate conference in Glasgow last year to “halt and reverse forest loss by 2030″. .”
Seymour also warned against relying too heavily on forests to offset greenhouse gas emissions, saying companies and countries should use them to go beyond decarbonization efforts – by drastically reducing carbon emissions. use of fossil fuels – or to offset emissions that cannot be reduced with current technology.
The airline industry is an example of this, as the technology to fly carbon-free 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 will enable carbon-free flight, but in the meantime it’s ‘relentless’ emissions,” she said. . “And compensating those who buy carbon credits can provide a desperately needed source of funding to encourage the protection of the world’s forests.”