By Rachel Koning Beals
The area of global tropical forest destroyed in 2021 was enough to cover the entire island of Cuba, disappearing at a rate of more than 10 soccer fields a minute.
That’s according to analysis of satellite imagery by a well-known natural resource tracker and researchers at the University of Maryland. The destruction sent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than India — one of the world’s largest polluters — does in an entire year from burning fossil fuels /zigman2/quotes/209723049/delayed CL00 +0.76% , according to an analysis published this week and receiving fresh attention as the U.S. marks Arbor Day on Friday .
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, including the more-potent, but shorter-lasting methane , are increasing average global temperatures. In fact, temperatures are rising at a rate that has sparked an effort from governments and businesses to limit such warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But views on how fast economic practices must change to reach that goal varies, even though most American voters want more action on climate change.
Chief causes: logging and fires
Some 11.1 million hectares (around 43,000 square miles) of forest were destroyed, predominantly by logging, but also due to fires, the analysis by the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch and the University of Maryland found.
Some of those fires were deliberately set to clear land for development and agricultural use, such as in Brazil’s Amazon, often to allow cattle grazing for beef export to the U.S. and elsewhere. Other fires can be linked to climate change, which is making conditions drier and hotter , the report said.
In fact, when deforestation occurs, it not only contributes carbon to the atmosphere but also disrupts rainfall patterns and increases local temperatures that can make remaining forests more vulnerable to sparking a blaze.
In the tropics, more than 40% of forest loss last year occurred in Brazil. Around 1.5 million hectares of forest in the country were completely cleared, mostly from the Amazon.
The WRI analysis warns that forest loss is pushing the Amazon toward a tipping point, where it will no longer be able to serve as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks and could even become a net emitter of CO2.
Indonesia and Malaysia, which had for decades battled rampant deforestation, have both seen a reduction in the amount of tree cover it loses annually for five years in a row. In Indonesia, the amount of forest lost fell by 25% last year.
Meanwhile, boreal forests — which are found in particularly cold climates, including in Russia, Canada and Alaska — experienced their highest loss of tree cover on record last year. More than 8 million hectares were lost, an increase of nearly a third from 2020, the report said.
“The rate of primary forest loss in the tropics has been stubbornly consistent over the last few years. Though the tropics lost 11% less primary forest in 2021 than in 2020, that followed a 12% increase from 2019 to 2020, mostly due to an increase in fire-related loss,” said Mikaela Weisse and Elizabeth Goldman, writing for WRI.
Primary tropical forests are critical for the ecological balance of the planet, providing oxygen that supports life and providing biodiversity havens. A separate report this week warned that biodiversity loss is eventually going to accelerate the spread of disease from animals to humans, as with COVID-19 .
Do you know the source of your lumber?
Consumers will be better served to understand the sourcing of the lumber, meat and other products they buy that are connected to forest loss, say environmental groups.
A column this week from the Natural Resources Defense Council charged that Home Depot /zigman2/quotes/208081807/composite HD +1.20% , a major seller of lumber and other products using wood pulp, is lagging in bringing its business practices up to date with fighting forest degradation and biodiversity loss .
Activist investment fund Green Century Capital Management has also filed a resolution with regulators that calls on Home Depot to issue a report assessing how it can address deforestation and the degradation of irreplaceable primary forests in its supply chains.
The company defends its practices in a policy statement , saying it sources the bulk of its wood in North America and selects well-managed logging companies. Home Depot addresses several Environmental, Social and Governance issues on its site.
But those pushing Home Depot to do more argue it has no definition of what constitutes “endangered” forests. Plus, the retail do-it-yourself chain questions in a statement on its site whether there is enough scientific consensus in identifying “endangered regions” of forestry. The NRDC alleges that Home Depot lacks any commitment to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification , a widely used industry standard promoted by environmental groups.
Forests as carbon offsets — a mixed bag
The WRI and other environmental and consumer groups also have a cautionary message when it comes to leaning too heavily on saving forests as a means to offset carbon burning in business operations, say when flying jets around the world or producing lines of fast-fasion merchandise for discount chains.
For instance, Airlines including American /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL -4.81% , United /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL -3.90% , Delta /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL -3.20% and Southwest /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -1.45% let customers opt in during the booking process to add a small charge to the cost of their ticket and send money to projects that include planting trees and forest protection, along with wind farms and cleaner cookstove initiatives for the developing world. All of the projects are billed as helping offset the CO2 emissions from flying.
Forest preservation is key to carbon reduction and biodiversity, they agree, but these efforts should not substitute for actually bringing down fossil-fuel burning to begin with, they said.
“Offsets could give the false impression that corporations do not need to decarbonize their own operations, or that consumers only need to pay to undo the environmental impacts caused by their consumption,” says Quinta Warren, Consumer Reports’ associate director of climate, energy and sustainability policy .