Tropical Forest Destruction Accelerated in 2020

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Tropical forests around the world were destroyed at an increasing rate in 2020 compared with the year before, despite the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, which reduced demand for some commodities that have spurred deforestation in the past.

Worldwide, loss of primary old-growth tropical forest, which plays a critical role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and in maintaining biodiversity, increased by 12 percent in 2020 from 2019, according to the World Resources Institute, a research group based in Washington that reports annually on the subject.

Overall, more than 10 million acres of primary tropical forest was lost in 2020, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The institute’s analysis said loss of that much forest added more than two and a half billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or about twice as much as is spewed into the air by cars in the United States every year.

“We’re still losing primary forest at an unacceptable rate,” said Rod Taylor, global director of the institute’s forest program. “A 12 percent increase year over year is too much when the trend should be going down.”

Brazil once again led the world in forest loss by a wide margin, as the pro-development policies of the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, led to continued widespread clear-cutting. Surging forest losses were also reported in Cameroon in West Africa. And in Colombia, losses soared again last year after a promising drop in 2019.

Indonesia and Malaysia were rare bright spots, with forest loss declining from 2019. For Indonesia, 2020 marked the fourth year in a row of declines, a sign the government was having success in its efforts to halt deforestation following a horrific fire season in 2015.

As in previous years, the institute said, most forest loss in the tropics was driven by agriculture, either the production of commodities like palm oil and cocoa or subsistence efforts by small farmers. In either case, forests are usually clear-cut and the resulting debris is burned to prepare the fields. Often these fires can grow out of control, resulting in greater forest loss, and the warming and drying brought on by climate change can make the situation even worse.

She said the world has yet to see the greatest impact on forests from the pandemic, “which will probably come into play as economies start to recover.”

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