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Rainforest area equivalent in size to the Netherlands burnt or cut down during 2020

The biggest losses were in Brazil, three times more than in the next highest country.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

AN AREA OF rainforest the size of the Netherlands was burned or cut down last year, with the destruction of Earth’s tropical forests accelerating despite the global pandemic.

New research from Global Forest Watch, based on satellite data, shows that the biggest losses were in Brazil, three times higher than the next highest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The study registered the destruction of 4.2 million hectares of primary forest last year – 12 percent higher than the year before.

Ecosystems on both sides of the equator shelter abundant biodiversity and store vast amounts of carbon.

In total, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of tree cover – including forests and plantations -  driven largely by agriculture.

But researchers said that extreme heat and drought also stoked huge fires that consumed swathes of forest across Australia, Siberia and deep into the Amazon.

The losses were described as a “climate emergency” and a “humanitarian disaster” by Frances Seymour of the World Resources Institute, which is behind the report.

The study found some evidence that Covid-19 restrictions may have had an effect around the world – with an increase in illegal harvesting because forests were left less protected or the return of large numbers of people to rural areas.

But researchers said there was little sign that the pandemic had changed the trajectory of forest destruction and warned that the worst could be still to come if countries cut protections in an attempt to increase economic growth.

But Seymour said the most “ominous signal” from the 2020 data were the instances of forests themselves falling victim to climate change.

“Wetlands are burning,” she said in a press briefing.

“Nature has been whispering this risk to us for a long time. But now she is shouting.”

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Plants – especially in the tropics – and soil comprise an enormous carbon sink, sucking up roughly a third of all the carbon pollution humans produce annually.

But tropical forests continue to disappear rapidly, threatening irreparable losses to Earth’s crucial biodiversity.

Researchers said the destruction of tropical primary forests in 2020 released 2.64 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2020, equal to the annual emissions of India or 570 million cars, more than double the number on the road in the United States.

“The longer we wait to stop deforestation, and get other sectors on to net zero trajectories, the more likely it is that our natural carbon sinks will go up in smoke,” Seymour said.

© AFP 2021

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