U.K.-sized area of trees lost annually since landmark deforestation agreement

A five-year stocktake of the NYDF says deforestation is still rising – but not everywhere

Old trees, such as this Ethiopian juniper dates back at least 200 years, are among the most vital for absorbing carbon dioxide. Natasha Elkington, CIFOR
16 September 2019
Sandra Cordon

In China, hope is budding due to substantial increases in forest cover and associated carbon stocks. However, that’s a rare bright spot in a new report summarizing the state of forests globally. The stocktake marks five years since the signing of the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF).

Population growth and concurrent increases in food demand means forests are being felled for agricultural in the Congo Basin. In the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation rates jumped a shocking 88 percent in June over the same time last year.

These examples and others directly contradict bold promises made by more than 200 governments, civil society, businesses and others who have signed the ambitious NYDF. The non-binding declaration includes 10 goals for safeguarding forests, with goalposts coming in the years 2020 and 2030: respectively, to cut deforestation by half and restore 150 million hectares of degraded forests and landscapes and to eliminate deforestation entirely and restore 350 million hectares.

DEFORESTATION ACCELERATES

Instead, tree cover loss has soared by 43 percent since 2014, from an average annual loss of 18.3 million hectares during the period of 2001 to 2013 to an average loss of 26.1 million hectares in each year thereafter. This equates to an area of forest cover about the size of the U.K. lost each year – including primary tropical forests that are vital for absorbing carbon dioxide.

Sumbawa, Indonesia, a country that has seen a recent slowing in primary forest loss. Aulia Erlangga, CIFOR

“Deforestation has not only continued – it has actually accelerated,” Charlotte Streck, co-founder and director of Climate Focus, said in a statement. Climate Focus led a coalition of two dozen organizations that produced the progress report. “We must redouble efforts to stop forest loss, especially in primary tropical forests, and restore as many forests as possible before the irreversible impacts of losing trees further threatens our climate and food security.”

The NYDF report – which includes six case studies of Brazil, China, the Congo Basin, El Salvador, Indonesia and Malawi – was released just ahead of the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September and a surrounding week of related events. Hosted by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the event is expected to bring together world leaders to discuss economic action in response to the climate crisis.

AGRICULTURE THE BIGGEST CULPRIT

Since 2014, the largest driver of deforestation has been forest clearance for agriculture, including the industrial-scale production of commodities like beef, soy and palm oil. “Forestlands continue to be converted to other commercial land uses, indicating that the short-term profits of forest conversion still trump the long-term benefits of forest conservation and restoration in many land-use decisions,” states the report.

Exacerbating these shortcomings is a major gap in forest finance. Investments to stop deforestation in tropical countries make up less than 1.5 percent – only USD 3.2 billion – of the USD 256 billion committed by multilateral institutions and developed countries since 2010 to climate change mitigation, according to the NYDF report. “The renewables (energy) sector alone has received over 100 times more commitments of finance than forests,” it states.

“There has been a failure to transform the underlying economic incentives that favor forest destruction over forest protection,” said Ingrid Schulte, one of the report authors, in the same statement. None of the 350 most influential companies with forest-relevant operations is on track to achieve its commitments to deforestation-free supply chains by 2020, the report notes.

Castañal, Peru, an area known for Brazil nuts. Peru is among the countries with the highest amounts of tropical primary forest loss. Yoly Gutierrez, CIFOR
Castañal, Peru, an area known for Brazil nuts. Peru is among the countries with the highest amounts of tropical primary forest loss. Yoly Gutierrez, CIFOR

A FEW ENCOURAGING SIGNS IN ASIA

Achieving international and national forest goals can’t happen without dedicated and reliable financing from domestic, international, public, and private sources. And as much as new finance is needed, the report points out that shifting existing funds from traditional to sustainable investments could be to an even greater effect.

Meanwhile, tropical deforestation has continued at an unsustainable pace, warned the report, which also noted that Latin America is losing the most tree cover per year. Of the 10 countries with the highest absolute amounts of tropical primary forest loss on average, four are in Latin America (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru), three in Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia), two in Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar) and one in Oceania (Papua New Guinea).

In addition to a positive report from China, another brighter note in the report came from the Indonesian case study, which showed that in 2017 and 2018, primary forest loss “slowed considerably” – by more than 30 percent – as compared to the average annual loss rate over a reference period of 2002 to 2016. 

And a satellite assessment of the Mekong region of Southeast Asia showed a net increase in tree cover outside forests, such as in croplands, shrublands and homesteads. The analysis suggested about 75 percent of the region’s restoration since 2010 has occurred outside of forests.

The report also found encouraging news from a number of public and private initiatives to deal with deforestation – but added that these are too often isolated and “lack ambition” by being disconnected from local socioeconomic conditions. Failure to address deforestation in a systematic, coordinated manner is a major reason deforestation is still rising, concludes the report.


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