Tropical forest loss increased by 10% in 2022


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The loss of the world’s tropical primary forests increased 10 per cent year-on-year in 2022, with tree cover equivalent to the size of Switzerland destroyed globally, according to new research.

The increase came despite a pledge made by 145 countries the previous year to halt deforestation by 2030, according to the report published on Tuesday by the University of Maryland and the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch.

Brazil signed the COP26 pledge in 2021, but the largest loss of tropical primary forest — occurring in areas of natural, mature forest cover that have not been cleared in recent history — took place in the country during former president Jair Bolsonaro’s final year in office.

Bolsonaro has been accused of turning a blind eye to soaring rates of deforestation during his four-year term. The myriad criminal groups that operate in the Amazon, including illegal loggers, ranchers and gold miners, accelerated their activities last year to maximise profits ahead of Bolsonaro’s anticipated election defeat in October, environmentalists said.

“It was a perfect storm. Opportunistic actors exploited the political transition and the weakened environmental safeguards,” said Natalie Unterstell, president of Talanoa, a climate policy think-tank.

Brazil loses tree cover the size of Belgium every year

Tree cover loss from 2001 to 2022 in South America

Sources: Hansen; UMD; Google; USGS; NASA and Global Forest Watch/World Resources Institute • Cartography Steven Bernard © FT

Animation showing tree cover loss from 2001 to 2022 in South America

Tropical forests are major stores of carbon dioxide and deforestation is a major contributor to global emissions.

Despite growing awareness from companies and policymakers about the need to curb the loss of woodlands worldwide, the equivalent of 11 football fields worth of primary tropical forests disappeared per minute last year, the report said.

This resulted in the release of carbon dioxide equivalent to the annual fossil fuel emissions of India, it added.

Major losses occurred in a number of countries in addition to Brazil, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia, from activities including agriculture-related deforestation.

Brazil’s losses of primary tropical forest that were unrelated to fires jumped 20 per cent last year to their highest level since 2005, as a result of the increased activity by criminal groups.

In the western Amazon, deforestation hotspots continued to concentrate around roads and were often the result of land cleared for cattle pastures, the report found.

However, Bolsonaro’s successor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has pledged to crack down on illegal deforestation and has offered greater resources and financial support to the country’s environmental protection agencies.

In April, deforestation in the Brazilian part of the Amazon fell almost 70 per cent from the previous year in a tentative sign of the country’s changing environmental trajectory.

Ghana, meanwhile, experienced an almost 70 per cent increase in primary forest loss in 2022 compared with 2021 — the largest increase of any country in recent years. Much of these losses were related to cocoa production, gold mining and fires and occurred within areas of protected woodland.

However, signs of positive change were seen in Malaysia and Indonesia, whose rates of tropical primary forest loss have declined to near record-low levels in recent years. Indonesia was the standout example, with non-fire-related deforestation falling 75 per cent since 2016.

Another hopeful finding was that overall global tree cover loss, which includes the loss of man-made as well as natural forests as a result of human or natural causes, declined about 10 per cent last year.

This was largely due to fewer forest fires in Russia, the report said, adding that 2022 was a “relatively quiet year for fires globally” with fire-related losses declining by almost a third compared with 2021.

“[The improvement was] more a factor of weather patterns than of human action to combat forest loss,” said Mikaela Weisse, director of Global Forest Watch. Market forces driving deforestation were “much greater” than those behind protecting woodland, she added.

Scientists expect wildfires to become more frequent and severe in certain countries as climate change accelerates, with the World Resources Institute saying forest fires were now burning almost twice as much tree cover as they did 20 years ago.

This article has been amended to clarify the year-on-year rate of primary forest loss rather than the total loss of forest.

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