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Deforestation is high, despite COP26 promises

Stopping deforestation was one of the major commitments to come out of the international climate negotiations last year in Glasgow, but there was scant evidence of progress in 2021, according to a report released Thursday.

The annual report from the World Resources Institute, a research group based in Washington, DC, found that tropical regions lost 9.3 million acres of primary old-growth forest in 2021. This resulted in 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or approx. two and a half times as much as is emitted by passenger cars and light trucks in the United States each year.

Brazil had by far the largest share of forest losses, accounting for more than 40 percent of the total, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia.

Last year’s total was a decrease of 11 percent from 2020, but it roughly corresponded to the amount lost in both 2018 and 2019.

Rod Taylor, global director of the institute’s global forestry program, said the essentially uniform deforestation over the past four years was not good “for the climate, for the extinction crisis and for the fate of many foresters.”

Most forest loss in the tropics is related to agriculture or other activities, such as mining. Forests are cleared and often burned, and these fires can grow out of control, increasing destruction.

In addition to adding planetary warming gases to the atmosphere, deforestation eliminates habitats for plants and animals, degrades soil and affects weather patterns and floods.

The situation has become so serious that 141 nations, including Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the UN climate talks in Glasgow last November promised to “stop and turn” deforestation by 2030.

Drastic steps will be needed to produce the consistent annual declines required to achieve this goal, said Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the institute.

“The numbers we share today could perhaps be seen as a baseline for assessing the effectiveness of the actions they take to follow up,” on those promises, she said.

There was some good news in the report, especially from Asia. In Indonesia, forest loss fell by a quarter from 2020, the fifth year in a row with declining totals. Malaysia also had a fifth year in a row of decline, although the forest loss in 2021 was only slightly less than in 2020.

Since suffering extensive forest and peat fires in 2016, resulting in a huge loss of wood cover and widespread severe air pollution, Indonesia has introduced stricter rules for the palm oil industry and others responsible for most of the loss. Companies have also been pressured to promise to reduce deforestation.

“This indicates that corporate commitments and government actions are clearly working and that Indonesia is heading in the right direction to enter into some of its climate commitments,” said Hidayah Hamzah, a senior manager with the institute’s office in Indonesia.

A new law that has the potential to weaken environmental regulations in Indonesia is a cause for concern, said Andika Putraditama, also in Indonesia’s office. If the government fails to maintain adequate safeguards, he said, companies would need to step up efforts to provide voluntary safeguards, such as the ethical supply chain movement that supports the use of sustainable materials.

In West Africa, Gabon and the Republic of Congo showed declines in tree losses. But large-scale deforestation continued in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which lost 1.2 million acres, mainly due to small-scale agriculture and coal production.

In Brazil, the loss of tree cover increased significantly in the western part of the Amazon Basin. This may be related to the development of roads and other infrastructure in the region, which makes it possible to find mining and other deforestation activities.

A recent study showed that the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest area, is less able to recover from disturbances such as drought and deforestation, and that at least part of the region is approaching a threshold where it will shift from forest to grassland. .

“It would release enough carbon into the atmosphere to blow the goals of the Paris Agreement straight out of the water,” Ms. Seymour. The consequence of all the report’s findings, she added, “is that we need to dramatically reduce emissions from all sources.”

“No one should even think about planting trees anymore instead of reducing emissions from fossil fuels,” she said. “It has to be both, and it has to be now before it’s too late.”

The report found that overall in the tropics, more than 27 million acres of forest cover were lost. But in its analysis, the institute focuses on older primary forests in humid areas, which play by far the biggest role in keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and preserving biodiversity.

The report is a collaboration between the institute and the Global Land Analysis and Discovery Laboratory at the University of Maryland, which has developed methods for analyzing satellite images to determine the extent of forest cover.

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