Last year alone, tropical forests lost 39 million acres of trees—which could cover an area roughly the size of Bangladesh—according to new findings that have conservationists concerned about failing efforts to protect trees and the vital role forests play in battling anthropogenic global warming.
Ahead of the Olso Forest Forum in Norway—which kicked off Wednesday and is focused in part on discussions about preserving forests to help meet the climate goals of the Paris agreement—Global Forest Watch (GFW) released a report analyzing University of Maryland satellite data, concluding that 2017 "was the second-worst on record for tropical tree cover loss," second only to 2016.
Tree cover loss encompasses trees that die from natural causes such as wildfires and tropical storms—which scientists say are intensifying as rampant fossil fuel use continues and temperatures rise—as well as deforestation, or the intentional clearing of trees for ranching, housing, or other industrial development.
"The steady increase in tropical tree cover loss is alarming, and the new data further demonstrates that current efforts to reduce deforestation are insufficient," researchers Mikaela Weisse and Liz Goldman wrote for GFW, a project of the World Resource Institute (WRI) and various partners.
"In addition to capturing and storing carbon, forests affect wind speed, rainfall patterns, and atmospheric chemistry. In short, deforestation is making the world a hotter, drier place."
—Frances Seymour, World Resource Institute
"If the world is serious about curbing climate change, all countries need to step up efforts to reduce deforestation," they added, noting that "beyond sheltering biodiversity and providing human livelihoods, forests also play a critical role in storing carbon."
WRI senior fellow Frances Seymour explained that "in addition to capturing and storing carbon, forests affect wind speed, rainfall patterns, and atmospheric chemistry. In short, deforestation is making the world a hotter, drier place."
One of the key drivers of deforestation is simply how governments and corporations are spending money. As The Huffington Post reported, "Studies show that rainforest nations such as Brazil and Indonesia have spent over 100 times more on subsidies for sectors that drive deforestation―palm oil, timber, soy, beef, and biofuels―than they received in international aid to prevent deforestation."
Seymour told National Geographic that countries and businesses spend about $100 billion annually on land projects that destroy forests, but only about a billion per year on conservation. "It's like trying to put out a house fire with a teaspoon while more gas is being poured on the flame," she said.
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Although soaring rates of deforestation in tropical rainforests have experts alarmed—particularly the 46 percent spike in Colombia, a "global hotspot for biodiversity"—the new data shows that trends beyond the tropics are also cause for concern.
Conservationists and politicians alike responded to the GFW report with demands for a shift in investment priorities and warnings about the consequences if the global community continues on its current path.
"These numbers are a call to action for everyone―forest countries, the international community, and private sector," said Andreas Dahl-Jørgensen, the deputy director of the Norwegian government's International Climate and Forest Initiative. "We simply won't meet the climate targets we agreed in Paris without a drastic reduction in deforestation and the restoration of forests around the world."
The Rainforest Alliance noted in a tweet that forest conservation is important not only for the climate, but also for indigenous communities:
Despite efforts to reduce tropical #deforestation, tree cover loss has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. That's why we need to recognize and support the legal rights of #indigenous people in order to protect our #forests and the #climate. https://t.co/bDgb9kebWF via @NatGeo
— Rainforest Alliance (@RnfrstAlliance) June 27, 2018
United Nations special rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz told the Guardian that the fight against deforestation has had deadly consequences for indigenous people, and emphasized the conservation lessons the rest of the world can learn from their communities.
"Indigenous people have long stewarded the world's forests that are crucial to the fight against climate change," she said. "The new data finds the rate of tree cover loss is less than half in community and indigenous lands compared to elsewhere."
Pointing out that about half of the nearly 200 environmental activists killed last year were indigenous people, she added, "Along with this violence against the Earth, there is growing violence against the people who defend these forests."