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Deforestation is making the world a hotter, drier place

Predicting how tropical forests will affect climate is a complex challenge. While stabilizing the global climate is contingent on saving the world’s forests, saving the forests is also contingent on stabilizing the global climate.  

Despite a decade of intensifying efforts to slow tropical deforestation, 2017 was the second-highest year recorded in the loss of forest cover. The tropics alone lost an area of forest the size of Vietnam during the last two years.

New science shows that forests are even more critical than we thought in curbing climate change. Research conducted by the University of Edinburgh´s School of GeoSciences, suggests that forests in tropical regions could soon become a source of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming instead of helping to counteract it. The loss of trees in tropical regions and the impact of climate change is, for instance,  limiting the forests’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide and affecting the wind speed, rainfall patterns, and atmospheric chemistry. In short, at this scale forest destruction is a catastrophe for the global climate.

In addition, the loss of tropical forest is harming biodiversity and infringing on the rights and livelihoods of local communities. Remarkably, last year, tree cover loss numbers reflected collateral damage from independent political and economic developments in forested countries. For example, Colombia’s 46 percent increase in tree cover loss is likely linked to its recent conflict resolution, while the doubling of Brazil’s tree cover loss from 2015 to 2017 was in part due to unprecedented forest fires in the Amazon, likely caused by the country’s ongoing political turmoil and fiscal crisis.

   Before and After - Deforestation around Chicanán river. Bolívar state, Venezuela

In light of this situation, international concern about tropical forests has been growing and different programs have emerged around the world as a result. In Indonesia, international cooperations on law enforcement helped to create national incentives for forestry sector reforms. Furthermore, this nation witnessed the application of a new generation of transparency tools to fight deforestation. In Brazil, on the other hand, experts have been working with Planet and MapBiomas in the NextGenMap project since 2015 – a Landsat satellite tool powered by Google which allows for the investigation of territorial occupation in any part of Brazil from 1985-2018. This nation has also been monitoring deforestation by satellite through the IMPE pioneering Terra Amazon surveillance system since 1988. Data provided by both remote-sensing tools now support the development of anti-deforestation initiatives, such as the Brazilian State of Mato Grosso’s “Produce, Conserve, and Include” strategy to end illegal deforestation while promoting sustainable agriculture.

Programs such as these now join the ranks of the UN’s REDD+ framework in the fight against deforestation, degradation and the destruction of carbon stocks. They are key to foster political will, present the necessary evidence and align national priorities with anti-deforestation actions. Continued public disclosure of data gathered and processed by this remote-sensing tools is crucial in helping both communities and law enforcement officials around the world to detect and respond to illegal deforestation in near-real time.

   Before and After - Drought near Los Alamos, New Mexico

Despite these efforts, predicting how tropical forests will affect climate is a complex challenge. Research indicates that climate change will cause higher temperatures and more severe droughts, killing more trees, but at the same time, higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will aid tree growth. Preliminary analysis suggests that a considerable amount of forest loss in 2017 was due to “natural” disasters of the sort, which are expected to become more frequent and severe with climate change.

“We do not know how climate will affect forests, nor if countries will meet their commitments to safeguard them.”, said Dr. Ed Mitchard of the University of Edinburgh. There is a limit to which forest-specific interventions can be effective in the face of a changing climate, but there are also clear solutions that need to be scaled up and expanded to forests throughout the world before the limit is reached. It is necessary to connect to domestic constituencies in forested countries and change the incentives that drive deforestation to make a meaningful difference. 



Written by: Mariana Hernández-Montilla

Style and format: Clara Gómez

Provita Aug 22, 2018


IUCN Red List of Ecosystems


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