Forests cover 31 percent of the Earth’s land surface (4.06 billion ha) but what is disturbing is the fact that the area under forest cover is shrinking, with 420 million ha of forest lost through deforestation between 1990 and 2020. The rate of deforestation is declining but was still alarmingly high at 10 million ha per year in 2015–2020 which is still a cause of worry as 47 million ha of primary forests was lost during the first two decades of this century itself.
Remember forests provide habitat for 80 percent of amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species and 68 percent of mammal species, and tropical forests contain about 60 percent of all vascular plant species. Though more than 700 million ha of forest (18 percent of the total forest area) is in legally established protected areas, forest biodiversity remains under threat from deforestation and forest degradation – many a times it’s the government sponsored deforestation programme under the garb of economic development.
Its true that shrinking forest area is one of the reasons for climate change but climate change is also responsible for reducing forests in the world. For example, there are indications that the incidence and severity of forest fires and pests are increasing in recent years. These forest fires occur mainly due to global warming.
Trees and forests are major means for combating climate change as they contain 662 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than half the global carbon stock in soils and vegetation. Despite a continued reduction in area, forests absorbed more carbon than they emitted in 2011–2020 due to reforestation, improved forest management and other factors.
Forests impact climate change in many other ways also, such as by affecting albedo and atmospheric water vapour and emitting aerosols. Deforestation in the Amazon and African tropics could have major regional impacts on rainfall and therefore on rainfed agriculture. The local to regional impacts of forests on climatic conditions is important; for example, trees in urban areas reduce land surface temperatures in Central Europe and in many other parts of the world, including India, in summer and during heat extremes by as much as 12 °C.
So, the shrinking forest area around the world is worrisome and steps need to be taken urgently address this issue. We all know that much of humanity’s progress had come at considerable cost to the environment and this cannot be allowed to go on any further. We need to discover pathways that can help address the crises facing people and the planet while also generating sustainable economic benefits.
More than 140 countries have pledged at the 2021 Glasgow Climate Change Conference, through the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, to eliminate forest loss by 2030 and to support restoration and sustainable forestry. To this end, an additional USD 19 billion has been allocated to help developing countries achieve these objectives. We need to act on this pledge very fast without wasting further time.