Although global forest destruction slowed in 2021, the vital climate goal of ending deforestation by 2030 will be missed without urgent action, according to one assessment.
The area devastated in 2021 regressed by 6.3% after progress in some countries, notably Indonesia. However, nearly 7 million hectares were still removed and the destruction of most tropical rainforests rich in carbon and biodiversity decreased by only 3%. The CO2 emissions resulting from the lost trees no longer absorbing carbon dioxide were equivalent to the emissions of the entire European Union, plus Japan.
Experts have argued that ending deforestation is vital in order to limit the effects of global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900). At the UN’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year, 145 countries pledged to end deforestation, meaning no loss of old-growth forests anywhere by the end of the decade. Deforestation and forest degradation cause about 10% of global carbon emissions as these trees can no longer absorb, or ‘sequester’ CO2.
However, based on current trends, the Glasgow’s leaders’ declaration would be as “blank” as the pledge countries made in 2014 to end deforestation by 2020, the assessment authors said.
They said there has been little clarity or transparency of actions being taken to end deforestation, only 1% of the required funding has been made available, and most importantly there is a lack of political will.
Erin Matson at Climate Focus, a policy group and one of the coalition of organisations that conducted the assessment said: “[the Glasgow declaration] was a big moment, the first time such a leader-level target had been adopted by so many countries, covering 90% of the world’s forests.
“But we are not on the right track. There has been some modest improvement, but even this may be temporary. Many countries jeopardise their progress by removing or rolling back protections. For example, Indonesia did not renew its moratorium on palm oil after its expiration date in September 2021, and a recently adopted law on job creation poses a serious threat to natural forests.”
The largest area of destroyed forests in 2021 was in Brazil, where deforestation increased under President Jair Bolsonaro, after it fell under his predecessor Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Scientists described the election competition between the two men on 30th October as likely to determine the fate of the Amazon. “The stakes are high,” Mattson said.
Four of the top five countries with the largest areas of deforestation – Brazil, Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Paraguay increased the devastation in 2021. Indonesia and its neighbour Malaysia, reduced forest destruction by about 25% in 2021. As a result, tropical Asia is the only region on track for complete deforestation by 2030
A campaign to end deforestation of cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast and Ghana has helped reduce deforestation by 47% and 13%, respectively, while new national parks and measures to combat illegal logging have led to a 28% decrease in Gabon. Tropical Latin America, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Guatemala also reported reductions in deforestation in 2021.
“We have the data and we know what interventions are working — the missing ingredient is the political will to actually take these actions,” said Frances Seymour of the World Resources Institute.
The report’s authors said countries supporting the Glasgow Declaration pledged to quadruple annual funding to tackle deforestation, but so far nothing has been published about how these pledges would be achieved.
Reaching zero deforestation by 2030 would require a 10% reduction annually, which means that the current rate of slowing deforestation is insufficient.
Growing innovations in the space
However, Scottish forestry researcher Kenny Hay has a potential solution to help revitalise tree growth in areas heavily affected by deforestation.
Research at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee in eastern Scotland has shown that LED light can be relied on to rapidly increase tree growth.
The specimens housed in the vertical farm unit grew six times faster than using traditional outdoor planting methods, according to Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), a government agency that manages the nation’s forests.
Water and nutrition are computer controlled and fed to plants through a network of plastic pipes. Vertical farms operate with much higher humidity and lose far less water through transpiration compared to trees grown in polytunnels and glasshouses.
FLS is aiming to plant around 24 million new trees a year, as demand for saplings spikes amid efforts to tackle climate change.
The vertical farm project, which occupies just 300 square metres (360 square yards), has found some saplings grew 40 – 50 cm (16-20 inches) tall in 90 days. A similar rate of growth would take up to 18 months in an outdoor field.
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