Tropical Forest and Carbon Store Losses are Higher Than Anticipated

Tropical Forest and Carbon Store Losses are Higher Than Anticipated

In this century, the world has lost about 10% of its tree cover, and carbon emissions from that deforestation are much higher than previously estimated. According to a new study in Nature Sustainability, tropical forest carbon loss doubled over the past 20 years and is continuing on that trend. More than 80% of forest loss was cleared for agriculture, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia. Once converted to farmland, it is likely to stay that way, highlighting the importance of stopping deforestation before it happens.

Why This Matters

The research "suggest[s] that existing strategies to reduce forest loss are not successful," the authors write. Forests worldwide hold about a century's worth of carbon emissions, and deforestation is the second-largest cause of emissions after burning fossil fuels. Cutting down forests moves in the exact opposite direction of what’s needed but will require rethinking how land is protected and peoples' livelihoods maintained. Beyond what forests mean for the global carbon accounting, they also provide cleaner air and habitat for wildlife.

The Nature Conservancy: Why Is Biodiversity So Important?, September 23, 2021.

"Deforestation and forest carbon loss are accelerating. There is a massive gulf between where we want to get to and where we are going, which is really worrying," Dominick Spracklen told the Guardian. He is a co-author of the study and a professor at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds.

Forest 500: A climate wake-up - but business failing to hear the alarm on deforestation, January 12, 2022.

Keeping The Carbon Trapped

When it comes to carbon stores, not all landscapes are created equal. From the Pacific Northwest to Papua New Guinea, a study last year mapped the world's "irrecoverable carbon" -- carbon that, if released, would be impossible to recapture by the global net-zero target of 2050. Primarily stored in mangroves, peatlands, old-growth forests, and marshes, this carbon map provides a guide for places to protect. As Conservation International put it, "To avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate breakdown, there are certain places that humanity simply cannot afford to destroy."

For example, logging an old-growth forest does the double harm of destroying the ecosystem and releasing stored carbon that contributes to climate change. About one-third is located on or within Indigenous land, presenting an opportunity to let native communities steward the land.

Conservation International: What on Earth is Irrecoverable Carbon?, March 31, 2021.

Conservation International: Biodiversity and Pandemics, September 23, 2021.

PBS: Widespread logging threatens the Congo Basin's critical rainforest, July 24, 2020.