An area of pristine rainforest the size of the Netherlands was burned or hacked down last year, as the destruction of the planet’s tropical forests accelerated despite a global economic slowdown, research released yesterday showed.
The worst losses were in Brazil, three times higher than the next highest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Global Forest Watch said in a report based on satellite data.
Much of the loss in Brazil was in the Amazon, including areas that were deliberately cleared, the group said.
However, dry conditions also meant that fires lit on deforested land spread to once humid forests, burning out of control, it said.
Across the tropics, the study registered the destruction of 4.2 million hectares of primary forest — 12 percent higher than the year before.
In total, the tropics last year lost 12.2 million hectares of tree cover — including forests and plantations — driven largely by agriculture, the report said.
Researchers said that extreme heat and drought also stoked huge fires that consumed swathes of forest across Australia, Siberia and deep into the Amazon.
These losses are a “climate emergency,” said Frances Seymour, a fellow at the World Resources Institute, which is behind the report. “They’re a biodiversity crisis, a humanitarian disaster and a loss of economic opportunity.”
The study found some evidence that COVID-19 restrictions might have had an effect around the world — with an increase in illegal harvesting because forests were left less protected, or the return of large numbers of people to rural areas.
However, there was little sign that the pandemic had changed the trajectory of forest destruction and the worst could be still to come if countries slash protections in an attempt to ramp up economic growth, the researchers said.
The most “ominous signal” from the data was the instances of forests themselves falling victim to climate change, Seymour said.
“I mean, wetlands are burning,” she told a press briefing. “Nature has been whispering this risk to us for a long time, but now she is shouting.”
The destruction last year of tropical primary forests released 2.64 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions of India, or 570 million vehicles, more than double the number on roads in the US.
“The longer we wait to stop deforestation, and get other sectors on to net-zero trajectories, the more likely it is that our natural carbon sinks will go up in smoke,” Seymour said.
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