More than a year after countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030, the world continues to lose its tropical forests at a rapid pace, according to a report published Tuesday.
The annual survey by the World Resources Institute, a research organization, found that the world lost 10.2 million hectares of primary rainforest in 2022, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. It is the first assessment to cover a full year since November 2021, when 145 countries pledged at a global climate summit in Glasgow to halt forest loss by the end of this decade.
“We had hoped to see a signal in the data now that we were around the corner on forest loss,” said Francis Seymour, a senior fellow with the institute’s forest program. “We are not seeing that signal yet and we are actually going in the wrong direction.”
The report, produced in conjunction with the University of Maryland, documented the loss of trees in the tropics from deforestation, fires and other causes. Last year’s destruction resulted in 2.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, a significant amount roughly equivalent to annual fossil fuel emissions in India, a country of 1.4 billion people.
Tropical deforestation also degrades some of the planet’s richest ecosystems, the habitats for plants and animals and the regulators of rainfall patterns for several countries.
According to an analysis of World Resources Institute data by Amazon Conservation, a research organization, the Amazon rainforest, the largest in the world, has seen the most destruction in nearly two decades.
Brazil, the country with the largest share of tropical rainforest, had the highest rates of deforestation worldwide. It was responsible for more than 40 percent of tree loss worldwide, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bolivia.
Bolivia provided some of the report’s most striking figures. Forest loss there rose 32 percent last year, the highest rate ever recorded for that country. It was one of the few tropical forest countries not to sign the Glasgow commitment on deforestation.
Marlene Quintanilla, a research director at the Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza, a nonprofit organization in Bolivia, said a powerful driver of destruction in that country has been a government policy that encourages farmers to clear vast areas to secure land titles.
“The standing forest is not seen as a social or economic function,” she said.
The expansion of agriculture seemed to be damaging Africa’s forests. In Ghana, the country that lost most of its primary forest last year, small-scale logging for cocoa production was a major source of deforestation.
Forest clearing is strongly linked to a lack of economic opportunities and basic infrastructure in the Congo River Basin region. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, most people do not have access to electricity, so the forest is an important source of firewood and charcoal for cooking.
Teodyl Nkuintchua, who works on strategy and outreach for the World Resources Institute in the Congo Basin area, said policies to curb environmental damage alone would not work.
“Unless we integrate development priorities into those actions in those countries, we won’t be able to tackle deforestation,” he said.
One of the report’s few bright spots came from Southeast Asia, where efforts to curb deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia continued to yield results. A moratorium on logging, efforts to restore peatlands and commitments by companies to exclude palm oil suppliers linked to deforestation appear to be effective.
And there are signs that the trajectory of global deforestation may change for the better in the near future.
The European Union pushed in the right direction this year by passing a law banning the import of a range of products that contribute to deforestation in tropical countries. China, the world’s largest importer of many agricultural commodities, recently pledged to crack down on illegal deforestation related to its trade with Brazil.
Brazil also seems to be changing course. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January pledging to protect the Amazon rainforest, and preliminary figures for the first five months of the year suggest deforestation rates there have dropped 31 percent since January. Under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation and environmental crime had increased sharply.
The report’s analysis focuses on the tropics, as forest loss there tends to be more permanent and mostly caused by human activity. Tropical forests also play a greater role in storing carbon and supporting biodiversity. But global tree cover loss outside the tropics was down 10 percent last year.
According to the report, the decline was a direct result of fewer wildfires in Russia’s boreal forests. But this could change. Canada is on track to experience its worst burning season ever.
El Niño, a climate pattern usually associated with more wildfires in the tropics, has also just arrived. There is concern that even if countries are able to curb deforestation during this period, wildfires could wipe out some of their efforts.
“An El Niño year will be a test,” said Rod Taylor, the global director for forests at the World Resources Institute, adding that he hoped fires wouldn’t cause major damage. “But we’ll have to see.”