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Russia and Canada ahead of tropical countries in global deforestation list

Lacandon jungle burned for agriculture in Chiapas, Mexico. Public Domain: Jami Dwyer, 2005.

Lacandon jungle burned for agriculture in Chiapas, Mexico. Public Domain: Jami Dwyer, 2005.

Tropical countries, especially Brazil and Indonesia, have been known as the nations with the highest deforestation rates in the world.

However, recent research on global tree cover loss ranks Russia and Canada – both 1000s of miles north of the equator – the highest.

Together these two countries accounted for 34% of tree cover loss between 2011 and 2013.

Forest loss is gaining international attention. At the UN Climate Summit in New York last September, governments, business, indigenous communities and civil society representatives agreed a New York Declaration on Forests, aimed at halving the rate of deforestation by the end of the decade.

Deforestation is estimated to be responsible for around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and a new analysis from the Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit shows this number could be much higher.

The analysis shows that halting deforestation and restoring tropical forests could provide up to a third of the solution to climate change.

The latest research into forest loss was conducted as part of the forest monitoring and alert system Global Forest Watch, a joint project of about 60 groups convened by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, the University of Maryland, and Google.

Featuring tree cover loss data from 2000 to 2013 at a 30-metre resolution, Global Forest Watch is the largest and most up-to-date global data set.

Through algorithms applied to satellite imagery from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, changes in tree cover were estimated. About 400,000 satellite images were analysed for the study.

Different causes for tree cover loss were taken into account by the researchers, including human-driven deforestation; forest fires both natural and man-made; clearing trees for agriculture, logging, plantation harvesting; and tree mortality due to disease and other natural causes.

According to the results, Russia leads the list with a loss of 4.3 million hectares, almost double the amount of deforestation measured in Canada, at around 2.5 million hectares.

Brazil came third with 2.2 million hectares, followed by the United States (1.7 million hectares) and Indonesia (1.6 million hectares).

The Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Malaysia, Argentina and Paraguay complete the top 10 list.

Wildfires contribute to deforestation in sub-Arctic zone

The increased deforestation rate in Canada and Russia, especially Siberia, has been linked to both logging and extreme wildfires in the boreal forests, which span the sub-Arctic region and are comprised of tall stands of spruce, fir and larch trees.

According to a 2013 study, boreal forests are burning at rates not seen for at least the past 10,000 years, climate change, and a resulting temperature rise in the sub-Arctic region.

As future climate projections illustrate, the warm season in the region is set to extend and become drier, resulting in more frequent and larger wildfires.

Furthermore, the boreal zone, also known as taiga, contains around 30% of carbon stored on land. This carbon is released into the atmosphere when trees burn down, which significantly contributes to further change in climate.

Indonesia’s deforestation rates slowed down

The research also shows a positive development, proving that tree cover loss in Indonesia declined to the lowest point in almost a decade in 2013, after findings released in 2012 showed that Indonesia had overtaken Brazil as the country with the highest loss.

Between 2011 and 2013, an average 1.6 million hectares were lost, indicating that deforestation rates may have plateaued.

James Anderson from WRI said the reasons for the slowdown in tree cover loss are still unclear. He told Mashable:

It’s been seen as this place in real trouble for the last decade. The real question is what’s driving that.

Anderson added that the decline in price of palm oil and other agricultural commodities could be slowing new development of plantations in Indonesia. Additionally, the Indonesian government has pledged to halt the logging of pristine forest-lands, while major Western companies, such as Unilever, have made zero deforestation commitments.

Siti Nurbaya, Minister of Environment and Forestry for Indonesia, commented:

It is too early to say this is a definitive trend, and the ministry is now examining how our numbers compare with this finding. If it holds true, this could be a powerful indicator that Indonesia’s significant investments in forest protection are paying off. We intend to take additional steps to ensure these positive trends continue.

In a press release, Belinda Margono, researcher at the University of Maryland and Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry said:

We have watched Indonesia’s primary forests rapidly disappear over the past 12 years, so it is good news that primary forest loss slowed to less than half a million of hectares in 2013.

However, the clearing of degraded forests remains a serious issue — 98% of primary forest loss is occurring in areas that have already been logged or degraded in some way. These forests are still very important and contain significant carbon stores, and should be restored and conserved for future generations.

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