Since 1990 the world has lost 178 million hectares of forest (690,000 square miles) – an area the size of Libya. Over the past three decades, the rate of deforestation has slowed but experts say it isn’t fast enough, given the vital role forests play in curbing global warming. In 2015-20 the annual deforestation rate was 10 million hectares (39,000 square miles, or about the size of Iceland), compared to 12 million hectares (46,000 square miles) in the previous five years.
“Globally forest areas continue to decline,” says Bonnie Waring, senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute, noting that there are big regional differences. “We are losing a lot of tropical forests in South America and Africa [and] regaining temperate forests through tree planting or natural regeneration in Europe and Asia.”
Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia are the countries losing forest cover most rapidly. In 2020, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high.
An estimated 45% of all carbon on land is stored in trees and forest soil. “Soils globally contain more carbon than all plants and atmosphere put together,” says Waring. When forests are cut down or burned, the soil is disturbed and carbon dioxide is released.
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The World Economic Forum launched a campaign this year to plant one trillion trees to absorb carbon. While planting trees might help cancel out the last 10 years of CO2 emissions, it cannot solve the climate crisis on its own, according to Waring.
“Protecting existing forests is even more important than planting new ones. Every time an ecosystem is disturbed, you see carbon lost,” she says.
Allowing forests to regrow naturally and rewilding huge areas of land, a process known as natural regeneration, is the most cost-effective and productive way to capture CO2 and boost overall biodiversity, according to Waring.
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