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Tropical Forest Destruction Accelerated in 2020

There were bright spots, but the total lost acreage increased by 12 percent over all from the year before, according to new research.

Tropical forests around the world were destroyed at an increasing rate in 2020 compared with the year before, despite the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, which reduced demand for some commodities that have spurred deforestation in the past.

Overall, more than 10 million acres of primary tropical forest was lost in 2020, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The institute’s analysis said loss of that much forest added more than two and a half billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or about twice as much as is spewed into the air by cars in the United States every year.

“We’re still losing primary forest at an unacceptable rate,” said Rod Taylor, global director of the institute’s forest program. “A 12 percent increase year over year is too much when the trend should be going down.”

Indonesia and Malaysia were rare bright spots, with forest loss declining from 2019. For Indonesia, 2020 marked the fourth year in a row of declines, a sign the government was having success in its efforts to halt deforestation following a horrific fire season in 2015.

As in previous years, the institute said, most forest loss in the tropics was driven by agriculture, either the production of commodities like palm oil and cocoa or subsistence efforts by small farmers. In either case, forests are usually clear-cut and the resulting debris is burned to prepare the fields. Often these fires can grow out of control, resulting in greater forest loss, and the warming and drying brought on by climate change can make the situation even worse.

Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the institute, said that what happened in the Pantanal was just one example of global warming’s increasing role in forest loss. “The most ominous signal from the 2020 data is the number of instances where forests themselves have fallen victim to climate change,” she said. “Nature has been whispering this risk to us for a long time, but now she is shouting.”

If anything, the crisis and the resulting global economic downturn should have led to less overall forest loss, as demand, and prices, for palm oil and other commodities fell. While falling demand may have helped improve the situation in Indonesia and a few other countries, Ms. Seymour said that globally it was “astonishing that in a year that the global economy contracted somewhere between 3 and 4 percent, primary forest loss increased by 12 percent.”

She said the world has yet to see the greatest impact on forests from the pandemic, “which will probably come into play as economies start to recover.”

The concern is that governments, facing deficits, “will be tempted to cut the budgets of enforcement agencies and license new investment projects that could lead to more forest loss,” she said. “Unless we offer alternatives, it is likely that government will try to restart their economies on the backs of forests.”

Category: Science

Source: New York Times

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