- The world lost a Cuba-sized area of tropical forest in 2021, putting it far off track from meeting the no-deforestation goal by 2030 that governments and companies committed to at last year’s COP26 climate summit.
- Deforestation rates remained persistently high in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world’s two biggest expanses of tropical forest, negating the decline in deforestation seen in places like Indonesia and Gabon.
- The diverging trends in the different countries show that “it’s the domestic politics of forests that often really make a key difference,” says leading forest governance expert Frances Seymour.
- The boreal forests of Eurasia and North America also experienced a spike in deforestation last year, driven mainly by massive fires in Russia, which could set off a feedback loop of more heating and more burning.
JAKARTA — Tropical forest loss remained consistently high in 2021 with no sign of slowing down, despite commitments by companies and governments to curb deforestation, according to new data from the University of Maryland.
The data, available on the Global Forest Watch platform managed by the World Resources Institute (WRI), show that tropical countries lost 11.1 million hectares (27.5 million acres) of tree cover in 2021, an area the size of Cuba. Of this total tree loss, 3.75 million hectares (9.3 million acres) occurred in tropical primary forests, the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems.
This means the planet is not on its way to halting and reversing forest loss by 2030, as pledged by 141 countries during last year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, experts say.
A handful of countries, most notably Indonesia and Gabon, saw their rates of primary forest loss decline significantly in recent years. But this was offset by high deforestation rates in other tropical countries, such as Brazil and Bolivia.
As a result, the tropics still lost 10 football pitches of primary forest per minute in 2021, in the process releasing 2.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHG). That’s equivalent to the annual fossil fuel emissions from India.
While the tropics lost 11% less primary forest in 2021 than in 2020, the figure was still almost the same as in 2019. This means that loss of primary tropical forests remains “stubbornly persistent throughout the years,” said Rod Taylor, the global director of WRI’s forests program.
Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow in the forests program, called the trend a disaster for the climate, biodiversity, Indigenous peoples and local communities.
A recently published research shows how forests — and in particular tropical forests where forest carbon storage and sequestration rates are highest — are even more important than previously thought for cooling the entire planet.
This is because forests help to keep air near and far cool and moist due to the way they physically transform energy and water. So when tropical forests are cleared, it immediately increases extreme heat locally and decreases regional and local rainfall.
Without forests, the global temperature would be around 0.5° Celsius (0.9° Fahrenheit) higher.
With this new finding, it’s critical for countries to act on their commitments to halt deforestation by 2030, Seymour said.
“But those actions are going to have to be dramatic,” she said.
This is because halting deforestation by 2030 will require a consistent decline in forest loss every year for the rest of the decade — a decline that isn’t happening yet in the tropics as a whole.
“We’ve got 20 years of data now, showing that persistent annual loss of millions of hectares of primary tropical forest alone,” Seymour said. “But we don’t run out of fingers counting the number of years we have left to bring that number down to zero.”
Agriculture-driven deforestation in Brazil
The deforestation hotspots identified by the report are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Bolivia.
As the country with the most primary rainforest to begin with, Brazil has consistently topped the list for most primary forest loss. More than 40% of tropical primary forest loss worldwide last year occurred in Brazil — a total of 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) — and the vast majority of that happened within the Amazon, Earth’s largest rainforest.
Some of the Amazonian deforestation was driven by burning, with the region experiencing a spike in fires in 2020 despite the federal government banning burning and sending in the army to tackle the problem.
But while deforestation from fires declined in 2021, according to Mikaela Weisse, deputy director of Global Forest Watch, non-fire losses increased by 9% from 2020. In Brazil, this vector of deforestation is most often associated with agricultural expansion.
The numbers are largely consistent with Brazil’s official monitoring system, PRODES, which found that clear-cut deforestation in the Amazon in 2021 was the highest since 2006, when efforts and measures were put in place to reduce deforestation.
Weisse said deforestation is particularly concerning in the western Brazilian Amazon, as the primary forests there saw intensifying clearing in 2021. Some of the key states there saw a more than 25% increase in non-fire primary forest loss between 2020 and 2021.
Some of the new hotspots of primary forest loss are largely associated with large-scale agriculture, likely for cattle pastures along existing highways, according to Weisse.
“And primary forest loss in the Amazon is particularly concerning this year because of new research that shows that the Amazon is losing resilience and is probably closer to reaching a tipping point, which is a point where a vast area of the Amazon transforms from a rainforest into a savanna, resulting in massive carbon emissions,” she said.
Firewood and fires
In second spot for total deforestation last year is the DRC, with nearly 500,000 hectares (1.24 million acres) of primary forest lost. The rate there has been consistently high since 2016.
Most of this forest loss is caused by the expansion of small-scale agriculture and harvesting of trees for charcoal production and fuelwood to meet energy demands, rather than fires, according to Elizabeth Goldman, a senior geographic information system research manager at Global Forest Watch.
“DRC’s vast forests and carbon-rich peatlands is a globally important carbon sink and big changes are needed to occur to curb this persistently high forest loss including pursuing new development pathways, improving agricultural yields, so that the expansion of agriculture doesn’t continue unchecked in the primary forest,” she said.
To reduce cutting down of trees for fuelwood, urban and rural communities need better access to affordable clean energy, Goldman said.
In third place last year is Bolivia, where primary forest loss hit a record-high in 2021 of 291,000 hectares (719,100 acres). As in Brazil, much of this deforestation was due to fires; in the past three years, burning accounted for more than a third of forest loss.
Unlike in most temperate forests, fires aren’t a natural phenomenon in the Bolivian Amazon, and are almost always set by humans. When they do, they tend to spread out of control due to dry and hot weather, which is exacerbated by climate change, according to Weisse.
“And in the past couple years, we’ve seen significant burning of forests within protected areas in the country,” she said.
As a result, Bolivia surpassed Indonesia in terms of primary forest loss for the first time in 2020.
The remaining two-thirds of primary forest loss in Bolivia was most likely associated with large-scale agriculture like soy cultivation and cattle ranching, Weisse said.
“New research that WRI put out last year shows that Bolivia is becoming more and more of a hotspot for soybean-related deforestation in particular,” she said.
A few bright spots
In Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest expanse of tropical rainforest (after Brazil and the DRC), the rate of primary forest loss declined for the fifth straight year. The Southeast Asian country recorded 202,905 hectares (501,400 acres) of primary forest loss in 2021, a 25% decline from 2020.
This indicates that Indonesia is heading in the right direction to meet some of its climate commitments, such as preventing deforestation and rehabilitating forests to turn them back into a carbon sink by 2030, according to Hidayah Hamzah, senior manager for forest and peat monitoring at WRI Indonesia.
She attributed the positive trend to corporate commitments and government actions. Following widespread forest and peat fires in 2015, the government has increased its fire monitoring and prevention efforts. Other policies that likely also contributed include a permanent moratorium on converting primary forest and peatlands, and the expanded mandate of a peatland restoration agency to include protection and restoration of mangroves, Hidayah said.
She also cited corporate commitments to protect forests; so-called NDPE commitments (short for “no deforestation, no peat and no exploitation”) now cover 83% of palm oil refining capacity in Indonesia and Malaysia, and more than 80% of the pulp and paper industry in Indonesia.
In addition, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) strengthened its certification requirements in 2018 to prohibit deforestation and peat clearing.
“These contributing factors certainly help Indonesia in reducing its deforestation rate, and to finally be able to achieve its national climate commitments,” Hidayah said. “However, Indonesia will need to reinforce forest protection measures to maintain its downward trend.”
This is because there are several developments that could potentially lead to the reversal of this trend in the coming years, she said.
One of them is palm oil prices, which tend to correlate with oil palm-linked deforestation.
Palm oil prices started to climb in 2020 and are currently at a 40-year high.
Andika Putraditama, deputy program director for agriculture, forests and land use at WRI Indonesia, said this “will surely increase the appetite” to expand oil palm plantation areas in the country. However, he also pointed to new research that shows deforestation linked to palm oil at a 20-year low, despite the recent increase in palm oil prices. This indicates the link between high palm oil prices and high deforestation rates may have been broken.
“What we are uncertain of is whether the decoupling will stay or not,” Andika said.
Another point of concern is the expiration last year of a government moratorium on permits for new oil palm plantations. The government says the temporary ban isn’t necessary any more because some of the original provisions have been carried over into the so-called omnibus law on job creation.
While that may be true, Andika said, they’re not the provisions that would make a difference.
“The biggest feature of the moratorium was the strong gesture from the Indonesian government that we no longer entertain expanding plantations,” he said. “That feature is not carried over [into the omnibus law].”
In fact, the omnibus law itself poses a threat of greater deforestation in the future, Hidayah said. The law is designed to cut red tape, making it easier for businesses to acquire licenses and lands in Indonesia by slashing environmental protections.
“The impact of this law, however, might not show up in the data for years to come,” Hidayah said.
Tale of two countries
Seymour said the trends in Indonesia and Brazil make for an interesting contrast.
“Their trajectories of forest loss have diverged two different times,” she said.
In 2004, Brazil managed to bring down sky-high deforestation rates in the Amazon and kept them down for a decade through a combination of government and private sector actions.
“But over the last few years, the policies of a new administration have managed to unravel that success story,” Seymour said. “By contrast, over the first few years of the century, Indonesia was on a relentless upward trajectory of forest loss, culminating in the catastrophic forest fires of 2015.”
However, Indonesia managed to reduce its deforestation rate since then, also thanks to a combination of government efforts and private sector restraint, she said.
“While international support of climate can make a difference, it’s the domestic politics of forests that often really make a key difference,” Seymour said.
The other positive trends in 2021 was in the Congo Basin, which straddles six countries: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the DRC, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.
While the DRC experienced persistent high rates of forest loss, both Gabon and the Republic of Congo had two years of declining primary forest loss. The Republic of Congo in particular saw its primary forest loss decline by 26% in 2021 compared to 2020. It recently passed a law allowing Indigenous peoples and local communities to legally hold, manage and thereby protect their forests, said GFW’s Goldman.
“Last year, Gabon experienced a 17% decline in loss compared to 2020, and became the first African country to receive payment for reducing carbon emissions in deforestation,” she said.
Seymour said countries like Gabon need to be recognized and reward with a larger share of climate funding for succeeding to reduce their deforestation from a low base.
“It’s clear that we’re not doing enough to provide incentives to those in the position to stop forest loss, to protect the world’s remaining expanses of tropical forests,” she said.
Boreal forests burning
While the WRI focused on the tropics for its annual tree cover loss analysis, the boreal forests of Eurasia and North America are also included in the analysis as they experienced the highest rates of tree cover loss outside of the tropics in 2021.
The rate of loss in boreal forests reached an unprecedented level in 2021, increasing by 29% over 2020. Much of this was driven by burning in Russia, which experienced the worst fire season since record-keeping began in 2001.
Russia lost more than 6.5 million hectares (16.1 million acres) of tree cover in 2021, more than four-fifths of this loss due to fires.
Goldman said fires are a natural part of boreal forest ecosystems.
“However, larger and more intense fires than natural forest activities are concerning,” she said. “And the Russian fires are particularly worrying because [of] Siberia’s vast peatland area and melting permafrost, both of which can release a huge amount of carbon when peat is dried or burned and when permafrost melts.”
These conditions may represent a new normal, impacting people living in Siberia and creating a feedback loop in which increasing fires and carbon emissions reinforce each other and lead to worsening conditions.
“This can lead to a feedback loop in which hotter, drier conditions related to climate change lead to increasing fires, which lead to increasing carbon emission, which lead to hotter, drier conditions, and so on,” Goldman said. “And so urgent action is needed to prevent this feedback loop from developing further, and we need to continue monitoring fires and new data in years to come.”
Unlike deforestation in the tropics that’s driven largely by agriculture, and thus results in the permanent loss of forest cover, in boreal and temperate forests it’s primarily caused by logging and wildfires, which are often temporary disturbances to forests that are followed by periods of regrowth.
Nevertheless, deforestation and fires in boreal forests are still a major concern as they exacerbate climate change, according to Taylor from WRI.
He said the feedback loop plays out more severely in the boreal region: “Global warming is generally happening faster as you get closer to the poles.”
As a result, boreal ecosystems are being overwhelmed.
“So you see fires that burn more frequently, more intensively and more broadly than they ever would in normal circumstances,” Taylor said. “And then we also have the fact that these forests, even if it might not be outright deforestation, they take a lot longer to grow back, hundreds of years rather than decades. So anything that’s happening now is going to affect us for a long time.”
The feedback loop doesn’t only affect the boreal region; it also makes tropical forests more prone to fires.
This, Seymour said, is a recipe for disaster.
“Wildfires are often linked to the hotter, drier conditions that climate change is bringing, which compound the similar local effect of deforestation itself,” she said. “And this loss of forest resilience is edging us closer and closer to tipping point, such as the wholesale conversion of the Amazon Rainforest to a savanna grassland that would release enough carbon into the atmosphere to blow the Paris Agreements goal right out of the water.”
Therefore, curbing deforestation alone is not enough, Seymour said. Countries must also reduce emissions from fossil fuels to make it easier to save the planet’s remaining forests, she added.
“It’s got to be both and, it’s got to be now,” she said, “before it’s too late.”
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