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Kirsten Baillie

by Kirsten Baillie

September 9, 2021

History will remember 2020 as the year the world slowed right down – at least for a while. Lives and jobs were disrupted, and the global economy shrank by about 3.5%, according to the World Economic Forum.

In fact, the global pandemic saw an unprecedented fall in activity just about everywhere. However, one thing that did speed up was deforestation. According to data analysis from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch, more than 12 million hectares of tropical tree cover was destroyed during 2020.

Tropical deforestation must become an urgent focus for global collaboration

Furthermore, the 12 million hectares included more than four million hectares of primary tropical forests that were, until then, completely untouched. This is a crisis for the conservation of biodiversity and climate stability. It’s also a major lost economic opportunity and a humanitarian disaster at a time when the world badly needs a break.

We now have two decades of data that shows exactly how much deforestation is going on each year. The 12 million hectares in 2020 represents a 12% increase on the year before and continues an upward trend that has been in place for a number of years.

COVID-19 lockdowns are likely to have allowed at least some of the short-term increase in deforestation due to a much more limited security/law enforcement detail. However, we are yet to see the full repercussions of the pandemic on tropical forests.

Economically, the world’s Governments are finding a way to cut debt and, at times like these, it’s common to see environmental agencies and investment projects losing funding. However, there is evidence to show that investments that focus on restoration, protection and conservation provide a more impressive fiscal stimulus than traditional kickstarts to the economy.

Climate change is causing severe weather changes

The biggest red flag from recent data is the sheer number of times tropical forests have been suffering due to extreme weather. We’re now seeing rain forests in the Amazon burning from the inside out, rather than forest fires starting in newly felled edges.

Even more disturbingly, we are witnessing wetlands on fire too. It’s a vicious circle for deforestation – climate change leads to global warming and the loss of forests. This in turn creates even drier and hotter conditions making the remaining forest even more vulnerable to fire and destruction.

The risks to our planet can no longer be ignored or shunted into the future. The longer it takes for the global community to work together to combat deforestation and move to net-zero, the more likely it is that we will run out of time.

However, there are projects and initiatives in some countries that demonstrate that this is a battle the world can win.

Indonesia has reduced deforestation for four years running

If we look at Indonesia as an example, we see that the country has actually reduced the level of deforestation every year since 2016. This is down to various factors, including carbon credit systems as devised by the Katingan Mentaya Project.

The fact that our project produces 7.5 million independently verified carbon credits each year – enough to reduce emissions equivalent to those emitted by two million cars – is real world proof that there are innovative ways to combat deforestation and improve the future outlook.

Other contributing factors in Indonesia include relatively favourable weather patterns and the widespread implementation of corporate promises to remove deforestation from supply chains. Furthermore, the Government of Indonesia has also played a major role in making tangible efforts to protect its tropical forests.

After the devastation caused by the Indonesian forest fires of 2015, fire monitoring and prevention tools were upgraded and expanded. Primary forests and peatlands, such as the 150,000 acres covered by the Katingan Mentaya Project, were put under stronger protection.

Indonesia’s success in reducing deforestation is down to a combination of international, financial and domestic factors. By avoiding the impact of forest fires on local communities and public health, the country is working with innovative initiatives and companies that have alternative ways to protect the carbon-storing peatland forest areas.

Combatting deforestation must be supported by global stakeholders

While gains like this must be noticed and celebrated, they are nowhere near enough. And socio-political changes can very quickly undo any good work achieved – Brazil shows us that.

Up until recent years, Brazil was reducing deforestation in the Amazon by truly impressive amounts. This was down to a series of proven market and policy changes that can be seen in Indonesia today. However, with the onset of the Bolsanaro administration, things have slowed down.

Between 2019 and 2020, the Brazilian Amazon lost 15% more primary forest. The current Government has undone every positive change and has effectively destroyed law enforcement and environmental agencies that were previously doing so much good.

The global community must step up efforts to tackle deforestation. Governments should be able to receive diplomatic support and recognition for any successes in reducing emissions generated by forests. They should also be given financial assistance and investment funds, as well as innovative technical support to successfully recover from the pandemic in a way that will work not just for now, but for the future.

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