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Primary forest loss up 12% despite pandemic

Old-growth tropical forest losses rose 12% in 2020 accelerated by commerce and climate-related factors, according to Global Forest Watch.

Logging of West African old growth forests in Gabon
Logging of West African old growth forests in Gabon (AN/David Stanley)

Old-growth tropical forest cover losses rose 12% in 2020 from the previous year accelerated by commercial activities and climate-related droughts, fires and storms, according to new data from Global Forest Watch released on Wednesday.

The loss of 42,000 square kilometers of humid tropical primary forestland cover, an area the size of Denmark, harms carbon storage and biodiversity — the variety of life in all forms. It caused the release of 2.64 gigatons of carbon emissions which is equal to the annual tailpipe emissions from 570 million cars, new data from the Global Forest Watch data platform show.

The data, based on satellite surveys, found the top 10 losses were in Brazil, Congo, Bolivia, Indonesia, Peru, Colombia, Cameroon, Laos, Malaysia and Mexico. The data, however, are for the loss of tree cover — removal of tree canopy due to human and natural causes — and not deforestation.

Fires and clear-cutting were the main culprits in the Brazilian Amazon, despite a seasonal ban on fires and temporary military action to curb illegal deforestation. Fires there are generally set to clear land, but they often burn out of control.

In Brazil's wetland Pantanal region, fires burnt 30% of the peat-rich land last year. Peatlands, marshy areas that refer to the peat soil they contain, occupy about 3% of the planet and store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests.

In Congo, tropical rainforests are being cleared mainly to expand small-scale farmland and to provide firewood. A report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014 determined that agriculture, forestry and other land uses have caused nearly a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

A climate emergency

Land degradation and desertification could be eased by changing the way people eat, scientists said. More sustainable land use would, in turn, add stability to the world’s food supply. Experts said the increasing loss of primary forest cover is another sign of an accelerating nature crisis.

"These numbers are a climate emergency, given the amount of carbon that tree cover loss releases into the atmosphere," said Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at World Resources Institute, which launched Global Forest Watch in 1997.

"It’s a biodiversity crisis, because so much of the world’s biodiversity is in tropical forests. And it’s a humanitarian disaster, both due to the direct impact on the communities in the forest, but also all the communities that depend on the climate regulation that forests provide," she told a WRI podcast. "We ring the alarm bell every year, but we’re still losing forests at a rapid clip.”

The message echoes that of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who has appealed to nations to start fixing our “broken” planet in 2021 with a commitment to embark on a carbon pollution-neutral future.

Guterres and other leaders are urging compliance with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which was intended to spare the planet from the worst effects of CO2, methane and other heat-trapping gases becoming too highly concentrated in our atmosphere.

He also has cited a “collapse” in biodiversity and 1 million species at risk of extinction, with ecosystems fast “disappearing before our eyes” along with huge losses in wetlands, forests and arable land.

Human actions are causing Earth’s natural life support systems to reach a breaking point, threatening 1 million plant and animal species with extinction, the 132-nation IPBES organization reported in 2019.