Photo above by WidodoMargotomo/Wikimedia Commons: Rainforest in Papua, Indonesia. The country is one of the only nations reducing its deforestation rates.

More than 12 million hectares of tree cover in the tropics was lost in 2020 alone, according to analysis of University of Maryland data by WRI. Most alarmingly, that included 4.2 million hectares of previously undisturbed primary tropical forests.

This loss represents a crisis for climate stability and biodiversity conservation, as well as a humanitarian disaster and lost economic opportunity. This analysis now covering 20 years of data shows all that’s been lost — as well as the interventions that work.

In a year when everything else slowed down, forest loss sped up.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted lives and livelihoods around the world, and the global economy contracted by around 3.5% in 2020. Yet despite the economic downturn, the loss of primary tropical forests ticked up by 12% compared to 2019, continuing an upward trend. Pandemic-related lockdowns probably contributed to short-term increases in forest loss in some cases by limiting the mobility of law enforcement officials and forcing urban-rural migration, but the more significant impacts of the pandemic on forests are likely yet to come.

Unless they see alternatives, governments grappling with constrained fiscal resources and high levels of debt will be tempted to cut the budgets of environmental agencies and license new investment projects that could show up in forest loss data in future years. And yet new studies (here and here) are finding that investments in conserving and restoring nature actually provide more effective stimulus than traditional measures.

Forests are increasingly falling victim to climate change.

The most ominous signal from the 2020 data is the number and variety of instances in which forests themselves suffered in extreme weather events. In the Amazon, burning now occurs inside the rainforest, rather than just along the recently felled edges. Even wetlands are burning! Global warming and forest loss conspire to create warmer, drier conditions, which in turn render forests more vulnerable to fire and pest infestation. Subsequent burning and decay release more carbon emissions, feeding a vicious cycle.

Nature has been whispering to us about these risks for a long time, but now she is shouting. The longer we wait to both stop deforestation and shift to net-zero emissions trajectories in other sectors, the more likely it is that our natural carbon sinks will go up in smoke.

SOURCE: Global Forest Watch