Protect the trees to save the planet
Exactly a year ago, when societies around the world were largely closed down in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the first reports appeared of the very positive impact these lockdowns were having on the environment, with the emergence of clear blue skies, refreshed water bodies, and renewed wildlife. By the end of May, there were many more reports and photographs of previously dirty rivers flowing clean again and of people in the most polluted parts of the world experiencing unusually clear views, such as those in northern India who were able to see the Himalayas, more than 200 km away, for the first time in a century.
This sharp improvement in the all-round state of the environment — with cleaner land, water and air — brought about discussions on how the pandemic and its related lockdowns did have at least one positive, even as they cost millions of lives and drove the global economy into the ground. It was said that world leaders should capitalize on the opportunity by pushing for and implementing wide-ranging policies relating to the green economy and sustainable businesses and lifestyles.
But by last June it had become clear that the world had learned nothing from its mistakes. Protecting the environment or making businesses sustainable were low priorities globally. Deforestation was high on the list of missed targets for governments across the world, as media reports from countries as far apart as Russia, Australia and Brazil, as well as large parts of Central and Western Africa, told of huge forest fires raging for weeks on end. Last year saw a 12 percent increase in the area of tree cover lost, up to 12.2 million hectares, according to a report released by Global Forest Watch (GFW) last week. The total loss of virgin primary forests, which have existed for millions of years and are among the richest storehouses of biodiversity, stood at 4.2 million hectares in 2020, the equivalent of an area the size of the Netherlands. The loss of primary forest also led to carbon dioxide emissions of 2.64 gigatons, more than 6 percent of the total for 2019.
Ironically, way back in September 2014 at the UN Climate Summit, countries, companies and international organizations set a goal of cutting the global forest loss in half by 2020 and stopping it entirely by 2030. This was the first goal of the New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary and nonbinding international declaration to take action to halt global deforestation. It is evident that this target, like almost all other climate-related goals, has been missed by a wide margin.
While the loss of forests due to natural causes like extreme weather, landslides or fires is difficult to predict and control, what is worrying is that, as in the past, the overwhelming cause of deforestation across the world was human actions. The main reasons for this deforestation were logging or the clearing of land for agriculture.
The total loss of virgin primary forests stood at 4.2 million hectares in 2020, the equivalent of an area the size of the Netherlands.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Brazil again occupied top spot in terms of the loss of primary forest, with 1.7 million hectares — an increase of 25 percent in a year and three times as much as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which was next on the list. The figures from Brazil are hardly surprising, as President Jair Bolsonaro has openly dismissed talk of climate change and has actively encouraged the clearing of vast tracts of the Amazon forests for farming, commercial plantations, businesses and even for housing and roads.
While Brazil has seen deforestation due to its government’s own policies, in Africa, notably the DRC, it is the lack of a proper government and a collapsed economy that has caused widespread forest loss. With the country in the midst of civil war and dozens of armed groups ravaging the forests and the people, the DRC’s economy has taken a serious hit, as has the government’s grip over the nation. As a result, it has lost nearly half a million hectares of primary forests. There were similar stories among many of the DRC’s neighbors.
Fortunately, the GFW report was not all bad news. There are a few countries that oversaw a dramatic drop in forest loss in 2020, notably the Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia saw its rate of deforestation fall for the fourth straight year and, for the first time since GFW launched, it is not in the top three countries in terms of most forest lost. This is partially due to natural causes, such as a very wet season after a few years of drought, but mainly the cut in deforestation is a result of government initiatives, both at federal and regional levels, including a moratorium on new palm oil plantations, which are one of the primary causes of deforestation. The country has also begun efforts to restore its wetlands and forests. The story is very similar in neighboring Malaysia, which also has seen a drop in the rate of deforestation due to government policies.
These successes clearly show that it is not impossible to achieve the goal of ending deforestation without causing major economic havoc, as Bolsonaro and former US President Donald Trump have frequently argued.
Although humanity has missed its first target for the cutting of deforestation, it is still possible for us to end it entirely if governments use the carrot of incentives and subsidies and the stick of severe punishments for offenders. This would need a concerted global effort, as the timber industry and the trade in other forest goods are global phenomena and one or two governments cannot fight this on their own. It needs all governments, businesses and global bodies to align their policies and put in place the best practices for the protection of forests and also reforestation.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.