Some tropical countries saw an “alarming” surge of tree cover loss in 2014, according to a new report.
The report, published Wednesday by the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch, uses data on tree cover loss — a measure of the removal, natural or human-caused, of all kinds of trees, whether they’re in a forest or on a plantation — from the University of Maryland and Google. That data show that in 2014, the planet lost more than 45 million acres of tree cover, with tree cover loss in tropical countries accounting for more than half of that total. Tropical countries alone, the report found, lost nearly 25 million acres of tree cover in 2014, a chunk about the size of South Korea.
The data shows that tree cover loss in the tropics is speeding up. Brazil, which has reduced Amazon deforestation by 70 percent over the last 10 years, saw an increase in tree cover loss in 2014. Indonesia, too, experienced an uptick in tree loss after seeing a drop in 2013.
“This analysis identifies a truly alarming surge in forest loss in previously overlooked hotspots,” Nigel Sizer, global director of WRI’s Forests Program said in a statement. “In many of these countries, we’re seeing accelerating clearing associated with commodities such as rubber, beef, and soy, along with palm oil.”
One of those hotspots identified by the report is Cambodia and the rest of the Mekong region, which includes Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and part of China. These countries — other than China — saw an increase in tree cover loss that was five times greater than rate increases in the rest of the tropics. But Cambodia in particular is seeing major surges in tree cover loss. The rate of tree cover loss in the country is rapidly increasing, and in 2014, Cambodia lost four times the amount of tree cover it did in 2001. In the Mekong region, rubber prices tend to pave the way for tree loss — as prices go up, more forests will likely be cleared.
The fact that Cambodia consistently came out on top for rate of deforestation from year to year surprised Rachael Petersen, research analyst for Global Forest Watch and co-author of the report.
“It’s not traditionally a country that many people would think of with crisis of deforestation,” she told ThinkProgress.
Petersen said the report looks at the broad category of tree cover loss because that’s what the satellites capture — they can’t differentiate between natural and human-caused tree removal. And trying to track deforestation, she said, has multiple challenges.
“Deforestation is a surprisingly controversial word and hard to monitor,” she said. “For some it’s permanent conversion of forest to non-forest,” while others have a much broader definition of the word. James Anderson, communications manager for WRI’s forests program, said that there are benefits to tracking tree cover loss versus deforestation, however, and differences in definition is one of them.
“Some countries may report deforestation very generously for themselves,” he said. For instance, the countries might say that deforestation only refers to the complete removal of forests, so clearing a large portion of native forest and replanting it with another type of trees wouldn’t count.
“The advantage of this data is that it’s sort of agnostic to this difference,” he said.
Anderson noted that these results will be important to countries leading up to the U.N. climate talks in Paris.
“Paris is coming up very soon, and countries are thinking about their commitments — how are they going to reduce emissions and where,” he said. For these tropical countries, land use issues such as deforestation make up the bulk of their emissions. “They’re not heavily industrialized, and they don’t have massive electricity and transportation sectors — it’s land use, that’s where their emissions come from. Conserving and restoring forests are going to be their best bet for setting targets.”
One of the ways countries can start conserving their forestland is by identifying degraded land that’s suitable for growing crops like oil palm but that doesn’t harbor forests. Planting on that land, Petersen said, can help countries continue to produce income from these crops but do so on land “that isn’t as high in carbon value and biodiversity.”
WRI has been tracking forest and tree loss for the past several years. Earlier this year, the organization found that the planet’s boreal region has had the steepest loss of forest cover between 2011 and 2013, with Russia losing an average of 16,600 square miles of tree cover every year. And a mapping project put together by WRI and other groups in 2014 found that Canada leads the world in forest degradation.