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The world lost tropical forest at a rate of 40 square miles a day in 2021, according to a sweeping global report published on Thursday.
Some 3.75 million hectares of largely untouched, or primary, tropical forest were chopped down or burned last year, according to the Global Forest Watch project. That’s roughly equivalent to deforesting 30 of New York’s Central Park every day.
The continuing rapid rates of deforestation, or forest loss, are both decimating biodiversity in fragile ecosystems, like the Congo and Amazon rainforests, and negatively impact attempts to reduce the planet-heating emissions driving the climate crisis.
Many forests act as carbon storage areas, known as “carbon sinks”, by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis.
Deforestation not only damages this valuable natural ally in fighting climate change but when forests burn, they emit additional massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The research was led by the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI), using data from the University of Maryland.
The global stocktake on forests comes after 141 global leaders signed a Declaration on Forests and Land Use at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this past November.
The pledge aims to stop, and reverse, forest loss around the world by 2030, to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of keeping the planet “well below” two degrees of warming.
“Climate change itself is making it harder and harder to even maintain the forest that we still have,” Frances Seymour, distinguished senior fellow at WRI, said during a briefing on the report Thursday.
She added: “No one should even think about planting trees over here instead of reducing fossil fuel emissions over there. It’s got to be both and, it’s got to be now, before it’s too late.”
The world leader in primary tropical forest loss was Brazil, with almost 6,000 square miles deforested last year. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was second with over 1,900 square miles lost in 2021.
Both are large countries so those numbers represent about 0.5 per cent of their total forest area. In smaller countries, a smaller area was deforested but took away more of the tree cover. Cambodia lost 1.5 per cent of forests, and Laos, 1 per cent.
Much of the loss in Brazil followed highways built deep into the Amazon rainforest, according to the report. It identified areas with new or exacerbated deforestation along roadsin the central and southern Brazilian Amazon, stretching toward the country’s western border with Peru. The report also suggests that many new clearings are meant for cattle ranching.
In the DRC, small farm expansion and demand for wood as an energy source has driven recent deforestation, the report says. Deforestation rates in the country have been climbing over the past twenty years.
However the report offered some good news with Indonesia, in particular, a bright spot. Deforestation declined again last year in the country - part of a steady decline in rates since 2017.
Indonesia lost almost 800 square miles of primary forest - equal to approximately 0.2 per cent of their total forest - down from around 3,000 square miles in 2012.
The report notes that while the DRC continued deforestation apace, Gabon and the Republic of Congo — two other countries in the Congo Basin — showed declining deforestation rates for the second year in a row.
Yet new challenges to forests are also starting to emerge. Bolivia, another Amazon country, recorded its highest rate of primary forest loss — much of which is driven by fires often started to clear land.
Fires also drove forest loss outside the tropics. Russia recorded its highest level of tree cover loss last year — over 25,000 square miles — the vast majority of which was due to wildfires. Warmer and drier conditions as a result of the climate crisis are helping to fuel more fires, according to the report.
These warmer temperatures are also drying peatlands and melting permafrost which, alongside the carbon emissions from forest fires, are also releasing further CO2 into the atmosphere, creating a dangerous climate feedback loop, the report notes.
In warmer latitudes, deforestation of tropical forest created 2.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions last year. This is roughly the annual emissions of the entire nation of India, Global Forest Watch notes.