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The world might have come to a standstill in 2020, but a global survey released Wednesday showed that tree loss continued full speed ahead. Over 100,000 square miles of tree cover, an area roughly the size of Colorado, was lost to wildfires, drought, logging, and insect infestation despite COVID-19 lockdowns across the world. “It’s shocking to see forest loss increasing despite the covid crisis and the restrictions in many areas of life,” said Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London.
Why This Matters: Forests are one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, sequestering about 31% of earth’s carbon. When forests burn or are left to decompose, they release millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating the warming of the globe. Experts say that even when vegetation returns, it often doesn’t have the same carbon storage capacity as the flora that was lost.
But forest loss on this scale threatens to become permanent due to the spread of agriculture and the tipping of biomes from rainforest to savanna. Experts say that nearly all of this destruction is human-made, and can be stymied or even prevented by government action. But if the leaders of the world don’t band together, tree-loss will prevent the world from meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.
By the Numbers: In 2020, tree loss increased by 7% compared to 2019. Russia, Brazil, Australia, and the U.S. saw the largest amounts of tree loss, totaling approximately 50,700 square miles. Tropical regions may have seen some of the worst damage, however.
Total emissions from tree loss in tropical forests contributed 2.6 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere.
In addition to tree loss in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, the largest tropical wetlands in the world, were set ablaze by agricultural burning. The fires became out-of-control, devastating 30% of the peat-rich wetlands, releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Agricultural burning and human set fires are the largest contributors to this massive tree loss. “You don’t get the ignitions without the humans,” said Deborah Lawrence, a professor at the University of Virginia. Other experts agree. “The increase in fire and disturbances is the part that’s much harder to control…if that’s going up, that’s no good,” said Richard Houghton, an expert on forest losses at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.
Protecting the Forests: Experts say that increasing forest protections could mitigate up to 5.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. “We cannot lose that stock,” said Lawrence. “If we don’t lose them, we still have to work really, really hard [to cut global emissions]. If we do lose them, I don’t think we can make it.” But mitigation requires world leaders to take decisive action, but too often, priorities don’t align.
During the mid-2000s, Brazil implemented agricultural policies like a moratorium on soy that drove emissions down for a decade. Now President Jair Bolsonaro’s logging and agricultural policy are undoing that progress, with deforestation in the Amazon surging to an 11-year high in 2019. “What governments do matters,” said Lewis. “Countries could get hold of deforestation rates and drive them down. It’s possible. It’s within our grasp.”
During his campaign, President Joe Biden called on the world to grant Brazil $20 billion to end Amazon deforestation or face “economic consequences.” Protecting the Amazon will require Brazil to come to the table, but it’s unclear whether Bolsonaro has any interest in conservation efforts.
The state of California is already warning, that due to the 2-year ongoing drought, this year’s fire season could be worse than last. Overall, more than 6,390 square miles burned in 10,431 wildfires in California in 2020 — it was the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history. Five of the state’s largest wildfires happened last year. […]
Corporations attempting to reduce their carbon footprint in the short run are restoring forests as a way of offsetting the carbon they release into the atmosphere. But some of these initiatives may be less effective than advertised. They are alleged to have inflated the amount of carbon saved from corporate ownership or claimed to protect land that was never under threat of logging.
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