Pandemic: 2020 a ‘devastating year’ for world’s forests
February 27 2021 12:41 AM

The rate of destruction of the world’s tropical forests is likely to have gathered pace last year, green groups warned, as the pandemic weakened environmental regulations, cut funding for protection work and forced city migrants back to rural areas.
In 2019, tropical rainforests disappeared at a rate of one football pitch every six seconds, according to monitoring service Global Forest Watch (GFW), despite more awareness of the key role of carbon-storing forests in slowing climate change.
The tracking platform, which uses satellite imagery and is run by the US-based think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI), is due to release its deforestation numbers for 2020 — when the Covid-19 pandemic struck — in the next three months.
Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at WRI, said the work of law enforcement and forest protection agencies had been constrained by limited mobility due to coronavirus lockdowns and budget cuts linked to economic woes.
“In addition, there are indications that some governments have reacted to the economic crisis by relaxing environmental regulations as a way to facilitate investment and jump-start economic growth,” she said.
Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb climate change, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-warming emissions produced worldwide, but release carbon back into the air when they rot or are burned.
Forests also provide food and livelihoods for people living in or near them, as well as an essential habitat for wildlife.
In 2019, the loss of 3.8mn hectares (9.3mn acres) of forest was the third-biggest decline since the turn of the century, with Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia the top three offenders, according to GFW.
While the pandemic last year caused a dip in demand for the commodities often blamed by environmentalists for deforestation, such as palm oil, timber and soy, many urban workers also lost their jobs and returned to their rural homes, said Seymour.
It was hard to predict the net effect for forests of those opposing forces, she added.
“While a drop in commodity prices could slow conversion of forests for commercial agribusiness, the return to rural villages of urban workers could increase small-scale clearing for subsistence,” she said.
Deforestation rates for Indonesia, which is home to the world’s third-largest tropical forests but also its biggest producer of palm oil, remained at historically low levels for the third year in a row in 2019.
“2020 will be remembered as a year where rainforest destruction continued unabated, despite major brands and banks declaring it a make-or-break year to end deforestation,” Gemma Tillack, forest policy director at US-based environmental group Rainforest Action Network, said.
In Brazil, government data shows deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high in 2020 with destruction soaring.
Anders Haug Larsen, head of policy at Oslo-based Rainforest Foundation Norway, said forest monitoring data showed deforestation rates in Brazil’s Amazon could have risen by about 10% in 2020.
In Australia, bushfires in 2019 and 2020 destroyed more than 11mn hectares (37mn acres) across the southeast, equal to about half the area of Britain.
Fran Raymond Price, global forest practice lead at WWF International, said 2020 had been “another devastating year” for forests in many parts of the world, calling on governments to introduce stronger legislation to halt deforestation.
“2021 can be the year we turn the tide on forest loss, but we need decisive action on the chief drivers of deforestation to ensure that solutions are sustainable and benefit both nature and people,” Price said. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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