Climate Change News

Global Tree Cover Loss Continues but Is Down from Peak Highs

New data show that an area of tropical tree forest cover the size of Nicaragua was lost in 2018.

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The world lost 12 million hectares of tropical tree forest cover in 2018. That’s a loss the size of Nicaragua and a rate of 30 football fields every minute, according to data announced today by the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Global Forest Watch.

Among the tree cover lost were 3.64 million hectares of primary rain forest, which had not been cleared or regrown in recent history. That’s an area the size of Belgium.

The losses of tropical tree cover are sharply down from 2016 and 2017, when forest fires swept through Brazil, but still represent a gradual increase since record keeping began in 2001. The loss of tropical primary forest also is sharply down from 2016 and 2017 and is almost unchanged since 2001.

“It’s really tempting to celebrate a second year of decline since peak tree cover loss in 2016, but if you look back over the last 18 years, it’s clear that the overall trend is still upward,” according to Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at WRI, a Washington, D.C.–based global research organization. Seymour, an authority on forest and governance issues, was among the experts who announced the new data at a briefing.

“We are nowhere near winning this battle” to halt forest loss, despite some progress in forest monitoring and protection efforts in Indonesia, Brazil, and other countries, Seymour said. “The world’s forests are now in the emergency room. Even though they are recovering from extensive burns suffered in recent fires, the patient is also bleeding profusely from fresh wounds. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

The data derive from the University of Maryland’s annual tree cover loss data set, which measures the complete removal of tree cover canopy in 30- × 30-meter pixels, according to WRI. That measurement does not differentiate between permanent and temporary land cover change or between natural and human causes of the loss.

Why the Forest Loss Matters

“Continued tropical forest loss pulls the rug out from under efforts to stabilize the global climate,” Seymour said. She noted that forests store carbon in addition to providing such other services as habitat for numerous species and resources for people.

“For every area of forest loss, there is likely a species that’s 1 inch closer to extinction,” she said. “And for every area of forest loss, there is likely a family that has lost access to an important part of their daily income from hunting, gathering, and fishing.”

Seymour added that forest loss also poses “an existential threat” to the cultures of indigenous people.

Countries with Big Forest Losses

The primary forest loss was less concentrated in 2018 than it had been in the past. In 2002, Brazil and Indonesia accounted for 71% of primary forest loss but made up just 46% of the loss in 2018. Instead, those two countries, along with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, and Bolivia, accounted for more than two thirds of the loss in 2018.

In Colombia, the loss appears to be linked to land grabbing in the Amazon, as the peace process opened up lands previously occupied by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement, according to Global Forest Watch manager Mikaela Weisse. Forest losses in Bolivia are largely due to large-scale agriculture and pasture, and many of the losses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are related to small-scale agriculture, Weisse said.

Brazil often is touted as a success story in reducing deforestation, with the country lowering the rate of deforestation by about 70% in the early 2000s, Weisse noted. However, she said that although the country’s primary forest loss of 1.3 million hectares in 2018 is less than the 2016–2017 fire-related spike, the losses otherwise are the highest for Brazil since 2006.

“It’s too early to say whether this increase is related to Brazil’s new administration,” Weisse said. “Next year’s data should give us a better idea.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has indicated his support for expanded development in the Amazon, took office on 1 January 2019.

Other countries of concern include Ghana, where primary forest loss in 2018 jumped 60% higher than in 2017. Madagascar lost 2% of its primary forest in 2018, the most by percentage of any tropical country.

Some Cause for Cautious Optimism

One bright spot appears to be Indonesia. Although Indonesia lost 340,000 hectares of primary forest in 2018, it was that country’s lowest rate of loss since 2003. Reasons for this improvement include recent government policies about forest and peatland management, according to Belinda Arunarwati Margono, director of forest resources inventory and monitoring for the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

“We can expect dryer, more fire prone conditions in the 2019 El Niño year, a true test of how successful these policies are,” WRI documents state.

Other causes for optimism include increased monitoring, protection, and enforcement measures, along with heightened concern among people in tropical countries about forest loss.

“Clearly, at the end of the day, the decisions about whether to continue allowing tree cover loss to take place [are] going to take place in the forest countries themselves,” Seymour said. “And increasingly, there is an appreciation within those countries of why preserving the forest is important domestically.”

She added, “We know what to do to stop forest loss, but we’re not doing enough of it.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Global tree cover loss continues but is down from peak highs, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO122217. Published on 25 April 2019.
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