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The world has pledged to stop deforestation before. But trees are still disappearing at an ‘untenable rate.’

Global leaders are investing billions of dollars into saving the world’s forests as climate advocates warn that this latest effort is crucial

An aerial view shows deforestation near a forest on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, in July. (Amanda Perobelli/Reuters)

On Tuesday, more than 100 countries signed on to an ambitious plan to halt deforestation by 2030 and pledged billions of dollars to the effort. Although world leaders lauded the move, climate activists say they’ve heard that promise before and that past efforts have come up short — the world is still losing massive numbers of trees each year.

“Despite ambitious political commitments to end deforestation over the past decade, we are still losing tropical primary forests at an untenable rate,” said Crystal Davis, the director of the Global Forest Watch monitoring initiative. “We are running out of time to solve this problem.”

According to Global Forest Watch, the world lost 411 million hectares of forest between 2001 and 2020. That’s roughly half the size of the United States and equivalent to 10 percent of global tree cover. In 2020, the world lost a near-record 25.8 million hectares — almost double the amount in 2001.

More than 100 world leaders pledge to halt deforestation by 2030

Global annual tree-cover loss by primary cause, 2001-2020

Over the past two decades, forestry has been the primary driver of tree-cover loss, followed by commodity-driven deforestation — the permanent conversion of forest for the expansion of commodites like beef, minerals, oil and gas.

30 million hectares

Unknown

Urbanization

20

Wildfire

Shifting

agriculture

10

Commodity-driven

deforestation

Forestry

0

2001

2020

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Global annual tree-cover loss by primary cause, 2001-2020

Over the past two decades, forestry has been the primary driver of tree-cover loss, followed by commodity-driven deforestation — the permanent conversion of forest for the expansion of commodites like beef, minerals, oil and gas.

30 million hectares

Unknown

Urbanization

20

Wildfire

Shifting

agriculture

Commodity-driven

deforestation

10

Forestry

0

2001

2020

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Global annual tree-cover loss by primary cause, 2001-2020

Over the past two decades, forestry has been the primary driver of tree-cover loss, followed by commodity-driven deforestation — the permanent conversion of forest for the expansion of commodites like beef, minerals, oil and gas.

30 million hectares

Unknown

Urbanization

20

Wildfire

Shifting

agriculture

Commodity-driven

deforestation

10

Forestry

0

2001

2005

2010

2015

2020

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Global annual tree-cover loss by primary cause, 2001-2020

Over the past two decades, forestry has been the primary driver of tree-cover loss, followed by commodity-driven deforestation — the permanent conversion of forest for the expansion of commodites like beef, minerals, oil and gas.

30 million hectares

Unknown

Urbanization

Wildfire

20

Shifting

agriculture

10

Commodity-driven

deforestation

Forestry

0

2001

2005

2010

2015

2020

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Trees play a critical role in absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow, thereby slowing global warming. There are a number of ways trees can disappear — from logging and wildfires to being cleared to make way for crops or livestock. But when they are cut, and are either burned or decay, they release the carbon into the atmosphere. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, about 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land uses.

“Avoiding deforestation is the best near-term thing we could ever try to do,” said Gretchen Daily, a professor at Stanford University and the co-founder of the Natural Capital Project. “That will keep more carbon out of the atmosphere and help us drive the broader transformation we need.”

Brazil, once a champion of environmentalism, grapples with new role as climate antagonist

There have been global endeavors to combat deforestation in the past. In 2014, for instance, more than 200 governments, companies and civil society organizations signed the New York Declaration of Forests, which called for halving the rate deforestation by 2020 and halting it by 2030. But, Davis said, the world fell far short — “we blew through the 2020 targets that we set.”

“It’s a mixture of lack of enforcement, lack of political will and the private sector not stepping up,” said Nathalie Walker, the director of tropical forest and agriculture at the National Wildlife Federation. “There has not been enough follow-through.”

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and arguably the most closely watched harbinger of deforestation. The rainforest is 17 percent deforested, and losses are especially pronounced in Brazil, which lost some 1.7 million hectares of rainforest in 2020 alone.

“If you’re looking at the area cleared, Brazil is usually the worst,” Walker said. And of that, “cattle is the single biggest driver” of loss.

Walker notes that starting in the mid-2000s, the country saw about a decade of positive momentum on the issue. “There was a suite of public and private measures that was aiming to encourage production away from the forest frontier,” she said. But in recent years, that has been reversed.

New research shows that last year, despite an economic recession, Brazil reported a 9 percent jump in its greenhouse gas emissions. “The principal factor,” the authors wrote, “was deforestation.”

South America, however, is far from the only region experiencing deforestation. Of the 10 countries that have lost the most tree cover since 2001, only two of them — Brazil and Paraguay — are Amazonian.

Countries with most tree-cover loss, 2001-2020

Of the 10 countries that have lost the most tree cover since 2001, only two of them — Brazil and Paraguay — are Amazonian.

COUNTRY

HECTARES LOST

1.

Russia

69.5 million

2.

Brazil

59.8 million

3.

Canada

44.1 million

4.

U.S.

42.2 million

5.

Indonesia

27.7 million

6.

Congo

15.9 million

7.

China

10.3 million

8.

Australia

8.5 million

9.

Malaysia

8.4 million

10.

Paraguay

6.3 million

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Countries with most tree-cover loss, 2001-2020

Of the 10 countries that have lost the most tree cover since 2001, only two of them — Brazil and Paraguay — are Amazonian.

COUNTRY

HECTARES OF TREE COVER LOST

1.

Russia

69.5 million

2.

Brazil

59.8 million

3.

Canada

44.1 million

4.

United States

42.2 million

5.

Indonesia

27.7 million

6.

Congo

15.9 million

7.

China

10.3 million

8.

Australia

8.5 million

9.

Malaysia

8.4 million

10.

Paraguay

6.3 million

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Countries with most tree-cover loss, 2001-2020

Of the 10 countries that have lost the most tree cover since 2001, only two of them — Brazil and Paraguay — are Amazonian.

COUNTRY

HECTARES OF TREE COVER LOST

1.

Russia

69.5 million

2.

Brazil

59.8 million

3.

Canada

44.1 million

4.

United States

42.2 million

5.

Indonesia

27.7 million

6.

Congo

15.9 million

7.

China

10.3 million

8.

Australia

8.5 million

9.

Malaysia

8.4 million

10.

Paraguay

6.3 million

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Countries with most tree-cover loss, 2001-2020

Of the 10 countries that have lost the most tree cover since 2001, only two of them — Brazil and Paraguay — are Amazonian.

COUNTRY

HECTARES OF TREE COVER LOST

1.

Russia

69.5 million

2.

Brazil

59.8 million

3.

Canada

44.1 million

4.

United States

42.2 million

5.

Indonesia

27.7 million

6.

Congo

15.9 million

7.

China

10.3 million

8.

Australia

8.5 million

9.

Malaysia

8.4 million

10.

Paraguay

6.3 million

Source: Global Forest Watch

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

One of the places where Walker says trees are most at risk right now is the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country has a large amount of remaining forest but high deforestation rates due to practices such as agricultural clearing, fuelwood harvesting and logging. “The Congo is under threat,” she said.

The Congo rainforest is losing ability to absorb carbon dioxide. That’s bad for climate change.

Russia is another area of concern. About half the country is covered in forests, and it has topped Global Forest Watch’s list of tree-cover loss since 2001 — with some 69.5 million hectares gone. “A lot of that tends to be for timber,” Walker said. While much of that may be managed timber practices, at least a portion of the logging is probably illegal, she said. And with such a large area “it’s difficult to police effectively.”

China is a primary consumer of Russian timber. Walker said that points to China’s broader role as a purchaser of commodities linked to deforestation — whether it’s Brazilian cattle hides or palm oil from Southeast Asia.

Yet the news isn’t all bad.

Pakistan, for instance, is in the midst of a “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami” reforestation campaign. The project is a combination of tree planting and forest protection initiatives that have previously proved extremely successful.

In Costa Rica, the government has been paying farmers to protect forests near their farms. The project was among the five inaugural winners of Prince William’s Earthshot prize, which highlights creative climate solutions and comes with a 1 million euro prize.

The efforts point to Walker’s contention that “there doesn’t need to be this trade-off” between economics and the environment.

Indonesia is another one of the “bright spots,” Davis said. While the country is still losing forests largely to palm oil, Walker said that “they are doing much better than they were.”

But addressing the problem in one place often isn’t enough.

When only certain countries crack down, Walker said, the problems can just shift to places with “lower enforcement.” Papa New Guinea, for instance, has also seen palm oil deforestation. And a recent investigation by the advocacy group Global Witness uncovered palm oil executives in the country disclosing corruption and brutality in secret tapes.

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The global nature of deforestation-linked trade is one reason experts see this week’s agreement at COP26 as important: More than 100 world leaders representing over 85 percent of the world’s forests again pledged to halt deforestation over the next decade.

“This new set of announcements is largely a reiteration of previous commitments,” Davis said. And it comes with similar risks.

Davis questions the roughly $19 billion in funding that governments and the private sector announced. “It’s really just an incremental growth in the amount of finance when we need it to be exponential,” she said, adding that she’ll also be watching how much of the money makes it to actual projects on the ground. “It’s one thing to pledge money; it’s another thing to spend money.”

But Davis also sees some differences this time around. More countries — particularly Brazil and China — are on board, and so is the private sector, which committed $7.2 billion of the funding. That, she said, could play an important role in helping get “deforestation out of the supply chain.”

Davis said she also thinks that people — citizens — care more about this issue than in the past and can help propel political change. A recent United Nations survey of public opinion on climate change found that the most popular policy area was conserving forests and land, with over half of respondents supporting the idea.

“I have more hope for that bottom-up public pressure in this decade than the last,” she said. “They are the ones that we can [apply] pressure.”

More on climate change

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