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Deforestation is a bigger problem for the planet than previously thought, according to new data that looked at related carbon emissions over the last two decades.
Tropical deforestation is impacting climate change at a rapid rate, according to new data from the University of Leeds published in the journal Nature Sustainability.
According to the researchers, the world’s forests currently hold about 861 gigatons of carbon, the equivalent of roughly 100 years worth of emissions. But deforestation is taking away big chunks of forest sequestration function and putting carbon back into the atmosphere. The researchers say that since 2000, ten percent of forests have been lost to deforestation, turning the regions instead into carbon producers.
Forest loss in tropical regions is being driven by cattle farming, palm oil production, as well as coffee, soy, cocoa, and rubber. In addition to threatening Indigenous cultures, deforestation is also threatening a number of animals including orangutans, jaguars, sloths, and hundreds of bird species.
The amount of carbon produced by these deforested regions has doubled in just the last two decades, a number the researchers say is higher than previous estimates. The new findings contrast previous data from the Global Carbon Budget 2021, which said carbon loss due to deforestation was actually in decline.
“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, a professor at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, who co-authored the study, said in a statement.
Spracklen and the research team looked at high-resolution satellite data from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, and Brazil. The researchers say that Brazil saw the largest acceleration of forest emissions over the last two decades. Much of that has come by way of clearcutting for agricultural uses—Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter. Its beef industry has been linked to deforestation in most recent years as president Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed regulations since taking office in 2019.
The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies says that Brazil’s cattle ranchers are contributing to nearly 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation, despite commitments from the country’s leading beef producers, JBS, Marfig, and Minerva, to discontinue relationships with suppliers that violate Indigenous land rights and contribute to deforestation.
According to the new findings, approximately 20 percent of the deforested land is across tropical mountain regions, historically home to higher carbon stocks.
The research comes on the heels of a new warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a co-chair of working group 2 of the IPCC. “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
That research also points to deforestation as a key driver of climate change.
“Tropical forests are huge stores of carbon. We must reduce deforestation to slow global warming,” said Yu Feng PhD candidate at the Southern University of Science and Technology, and lead author of the study.
The IPCC researchers say that the increase in emissions comes after several global commitments to reduce deforestation, including 2014’s New York Declaration on Forests. Its aim was to reduce deforestation by 50 percent by 2020—a target that was signed by 37 governments, 20 sub-national governments, 53 global companies, 16 groups representing Indigenous communities, and 63 nonprofits. But it has missed its target. A progress report released last year on the declaration found that a majority of signatories have not included those targets in their latest climate pledges to the UN.
Last November, 142 countries attending COP26 events in Glasgow, committed to halting and reversing forest loss by 2030. But the Leeds team warn there are forces at work beyond the scope of government leading to the forest loss.
“The standard methods used by the IPCC are not spotting some of the things we’ve seen in this paper, such as small-scale deforestation and the movement of land-clearing into mountains,” Spracklen said. “They aren’t really capturing the trend that we’ve seen in the last two decades.”
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