Two years ago the world signed the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. It included specific pledges to “conserve and enhance” the world’s forests in order to combat rising temperatures. But in the last two years – 2015 and 2016 – we’ve lost enough trees to cover 493,716 square kilometres, according to satellite data recently released by Global Forest Watch (GFW). This is nearly equal to the entirety of Spain – or about four Englands.
Currently, deforestation accounts for around 10-15% of annual global carbon emissions. Even as combating deforestation has long been seen as one of the cheapest ways to tackle global warming, GFW’s data shows just how far we have to go.
“Forests are fundamentally hard to protect – they are in remote frontiers or in countries with weak governance,” said Liz Goldman, a Research Associate at GFW.
But she added that the rising forest loss “doesn’t mean deforestation pledges are not having an impact – many of these agreements are still at an early stage. Important.”
2015 – The assault on New Guinea
In 2015, the world lost enough trees to blanket 198,295 square kilometres, an area around the size of Uganda. On the plus side, this was a slight dip from the year before. But it still represented a worldwide trend of rising deforestation since GFW started tracking tree loss in 2001 – even as governments and corporations (increasingly and repeatedly) pledged to do something about it.
Arguably, the most shocking data in 2015 came from the island of New Guinea, which is considered the third largest block of intact rainforest on the planet, after the increasingly fractured Amazon and the Congo. Deforestation on the island jumped an astounding 70% in 2015, threatening the island’s thousands of species found no-where else – think birds of paradise and tree kangaroos – and its local people who have lived closely tied to the forests around them for millennia.
The island of New Guinea is split into two distinct political entities. The western half is a remote – but large and rich in natural resources – region of Indonesia, governed by faraway Jakarta. The eastern half of the island is its own country, Papua New Guinea. Both areas, however, saw significant jumps in forest loss beginning in 2015.
“Visual inspection of the data shows that industrial agriculture and logging are the major players in Papua,” Mikaela Weisse, a Research Analyst with GFW, said. “Data from Greenpeace Indonesia shows that 48 palm oil companies have permits in Indonesian Papua, some as large as 45,000 hectares.”
The satellite imagery shows what many have long warned: that the island of New Guinea has become the newest frontier for forest destruction. Logging and palm oil companies, among others, are infiltrating the island, viewing it as a lucrative place to expand operations in an increasingly resource-scarce planet.
The numbers in 2016 were hardly any better for New Guinea. Tree loss dipped slightly in Papua New Guinea but rose in Indonesian Papua – potentially pointing to a new trend of high deforestation across one of the most intact tropical forests we have left.
2016 – World aflame
As bad as 2015 was for the world’s forests, last year was far, far worse. In 2016, tree loss jumped 51% globally from the year before taking out a total of 297,000 square kilometres.
“Clearly this is a sign that we need to do more,” said Goldman.
Experts at GFW say the jump in 2016 was driven largely by one thing: fire. In temperate forests, fire is often a natural part of the ecosystem’s life cycle and can even bring about renewal to forests. But fire has no place in tropical forests where it is nearly always caused by humans trying to clear land for planting.
“These large-scale fires [in the tropics]…damage the forests’ natural structure, affect the habitats of plant and wildlife, and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air,” said Goldman.
Such fires can even lead to international crises. In 2015, blazes across Indonesia resulted in a toxic haze that at times covered several Southeast Asian neighbours, cost up to $35 billion and, according to one analysis, likely lead to the premature deaths of 100,000 people due to respiratory issues.
Indonesia– which has taken the unenviable spot of the world’s largest forest destroyer from Brazil –has tried for years to combat such fires. In 2011 Indonesia installed a moratorium on new logging or plantation concessions on primary forest and peatlands. But it’s not proven as successful as hoped, according to many experts.
“Our data show that the moratorium has not had much of an impact on forest protection,” said Weisse. “Forest loss within moratorium areas has continued to increase in 2015 in all areas except Sumatra, which [has] little primary forest left.”
She added the moratorium may be ineffectual because it’s essentially toothless. Companies defying the moratorium don’t face “legal consequences,” according to Weisse. Already, some are warning that Indonesia won’t be able to meet its climate pledges which hinge largely on reducing deforestation.
Today, even fires in temperate areas – see California’s epic conflagrations this year – appear to be exacerbated by rising temperatures worldwide.
“There is mounting scientific evidence that climate change is heating up our forests,” Goldman said.
Hotter, drier forests are more prone to fire and harder to put out. It was no coincidence that 2016 was not only a major fire year, but also the warmest year on record. Moreover, the constant cuts we are making into intact forests are leaving them more vulnerable. Decades of research shows that forest fragments are hotter, drier and more prone to fire than intact forests.
“There is increasing evidence that climate change, coupled with land use change and fire could lead to forest dieback in places like the Amazon,” said Goldman.
Already, we have lost around one third of the Amazon Rainforest to deforesters like the cattle and soy industries. Experts increasingly believe that regional rainfall in Brazil is being negatively impacted by carving away at the world’s greatest tropical forest.
After peaking in 2004, deforestation slowed in Brazil. Indeed, Brazil’s successful efforts in stemming deforestation have long been pointed to as one of the major wins in combating climate change and protecting forests. 2016 changed that. A new government in Brazil views the Amazon not as a region worth protecting, but largely as a resource to exploit. Last year saw forest destruction rise in Brazil to the highest level yet measured by GFW, easily eclipsing 2004. Whether this is a one-off incident or a new trend remains to be seen.
Together Brazil and Indonesia accounted for nearly a quarter of all forest loss last year.
GFW – which is run by a partnership of University of Maryland, Google and the World Resources Institute – analyses satellite data to track tree loss worldwide at a scale of 30×30 metres. They state that they do not measure true deforestation – the loss of forest to human activities – but tree loss.
“We refer to the data on GFW as tree cover loss because it can’t distinguish plantations from natural forest, or human-caused forest loss from natural loss,” said Weisse.
In other words, to a satellite natural forests and plantations look the same. So, when a plantation is cleared, GFW measures that as tree loss, even though it will shortly be replanted.
However, GFW is working on changing how to tracks tree loss. The group has developed a map of primary forests versus plantations for Indonesia in order to come up with more accurate numbers of forest destruction in the country.
Despite current limitations, the GFW has become instrumental in measuring our impact on the world’s forests, even in near real-time in some places.
The Food and Agriculture Organization also tracks deforestation, claiming in 2015 that deforestation had slowed worldwide. However the FAO, a UN agency, depends on self-reporting from each country, leading to different measurements in different places and a dependence on self-reporting. The FAO also counts monoculture plantations – such as pulp and paper and rubber (though not oil palm) – as forest, despite the fact that ecologists have been arguing for years that monoculture plantations are in no-way true forests.
“They’re about as biologically similar to native forests as my front lawn,” William Laurence, a forest ecologist at James Cook University, said last year in Ensia.
Plantations contain fewer species, retain significantly less carbon, and often result in soil erosion and water pollution from inputs of herbicides and pesticides.
“The truth is that neither GFW nor FAO is perfect or complete, and each has their strengths and shortcomings,” said Weisse. “Rather than see the two systems as contradictory, we believe that we need to rely on both sources to have a complete understanding of the world’s forests.”
The ongoing scale of forest loss means that far more action is required, according to Goldman and Weisse. They say that nations and corporations need to speed up the process of decoupling deforestation from commodity supply chains like beef, palm oil, rubber and wood. At the same time, governments must increase enforcement efforts on-the-ground and make sure companies that defy laws and regulations are adequately punished. Finally, local and indigenous communities need to be given rights to their traditional land. Research has shown that the best forest protectors are indigenous groups – so long as they have secure rights to the forests they depend on.
But first the world really has to make forests a priority, and not just another issue drowned in meetings, proposals and pledges. Governments have to stop paying lip service while turning a blind eye and more forest funding is needed from wealthy nations.
“We want to do more than watch [forests] disappear,” said Weisse. “Our hope is that governments, companies, and civil society organisations can use the information we provide on when and where forests are changing to make better decisions.”