How can we save the world’s rainforests?

Amazon rainforest.

Rainforests are a big part of Earth's climate. Image: Ivars Utināns/Unsplash

Stefan Ellerbeck
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Tropical rainforests cover about 6% of the earth’s surface, but are home to around 50% of all terrestrial diversity.
  • Rainforests are crucial in the fight against climate change as they act as carbon sinks which soak up greenhouse gases.
  • Deforestation remains a significant threat, as the global demand for food and fuel continues to rise.
  • Governments and corporations need to do more to stop tree loss through cleaning up supply chains and reforming carbon pricing, the United Nations says.

Rainforests may only cover around 6% of the earth’s surface, but they are home to around 50% of all terrestrial biodiversity and provide the resources for many of the everyday products we use.

They are also a crucial part of the fight against climate change - absorbing greenhouse gases, moderating temperatures and influencing rainfall. However, when rainforests are cut down, they emit large quantities of CO2 and other gases such as methane. The United Nations (UN) estimates that around 20% of carbon emissions are being produced by their destruction.

With mitigation of harmful emissions top of the COP27 agenda, deforestation will be a major conversation to watch throughout the UN’s climate summit.

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Last year, at COP26, 45 countries signed up to the Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Land and Forest Use with the aim of “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation”.

Yet, there has been record-high tree loss in the Amazon Rainforest in the past year, according to national space agency, Inpe, the BBC reported.

Forests slow climate change and increase resilience.
Forests are vital in the fight against climate change. Image: World Bank

The threat to rainforests

So, why, despite the importance of rainforests to the planet, is deforestation still such a significant threat? It’s mostly due to the growing demand for food and fuel as well as the building of new infrastructure like roads, experts say.

Since 2002, an average of 3.2 million hectares of primary tropical forest have been destroyed per year, according to data from the University of Maryland. These are the most biodiverse and carbon-dense types of forest. Even larger areas of secondary forests have been cleared. As the planet warms, wildfires are also becoming an increasing threat, scientists say.

Tropical primary forest loss, 2002-2021
Tropical countries lost 3.75 million hectares of primary forest in 2021. Image: Mongabay/World Resources Institute

The state of the world’s largest tropical rainforests

The not-for-profit environmental organization Earth.Org has used data from the University of Maryland and the World Resources Institute to assess the status of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests. Here are some key stats on five largest:

1. Amazon

The Amazon is by far the biggest tropical rainforest in the world, as defined by the area of primary forest cover. It accounts for just over a third of tree cover in the tropics, and is more than three times larger than the world’s second largest rainforest. Between 2002 and 2019 more than 30 million hectares of primary forest were lost in the region, amounting to half the world's total tropical primary forest loss in that period.

2. Congo Basin

The second largest rainforest is in the Congo Basin which drains an area of 3.7 million square kilometres. Most of the Congo rainforest is within the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Deforestation of the region has been increasing in recent years, with 6 million hectares of primary forest lost between 2002 and 2019.

3. Australasian Realm

The island of New Guinea is home to most of the Australasian rainforest, although it stretches into parts of northeastern Australia. It has the second lowest rate of primary forest loss since 2001. However, deforestation is increasing largely due to rising demand for palm oil. Indonesian New Guinea has lost 605,000 hectares of primary forest since 2002, while Papua New Guinea lost 732,000 hectares.

4. Sundaland

Most of the region’s remaining rainforest is on the island of Borneo, which includes parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Although deforestation has been slowing, the region lost the world’s largest share of primary forest cover between 2002 and 2019. Borneo lost 15% and the island of Sumatra 25%. The establishment of oil palm and timber plantations have been the biggest drivers of deforestation.

5. Indo-Burma

The primary forest region covers Myanmar (34%), Laos (19%), Vietnam (15%), Thailand (14%), Cambodia (8&), India (6%) and parts of southern China (4%). The Indo-Burma region has lost around 8% of its primary forests and 12% of its tree cover since 2001. It’s estimated that 34% of this loss occurred in Cambodia.

Pie Chart: the world's largest primary forests in the tropics in 2020.
The Amazon is by far the largest rainforest in the world. Image: Mongabay/World Resources Institute

The fight against deforestation

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says it has three main priorities to safeguard the world’s rainforests. Firstly it says companies involved in commodity production should ensure their supply chains are not tainted by deforestation. The organization is hopeful that major commodity importers such as the European Union will begin to impose conditions on their purchases.

Secondly, governments must “take action to curb deforestation, strengthen conservation and drive ahead with restoration.” The UNEP notes that from 2004-2012 the rate of deforestation in Brazil was reduced by around 80% without any significant damage to the agriculture sector.

And, thirdly, it says carbon-pricing needs to be changed, “In the European Union carbon market, the price of permission to pollute is between 60 and 70 euros a tonne. But the price of forest carbon in voluntary carbon markets is only about US$12... If the price for forest carbon came close to the price you see in Europe, the economic rationale for a lot of the activities that result in deforestation would disappear”, the Head of UNEP’s Climate Mitigation Unit Gabriel Labbate said.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

But the conservation momentum is growing. The World Economic Forum’s project is a global movement aiming to conserve, restore and grow one trillion trees by 2030. Around 71 companies have so far committed to protect almost seven billion trees around the world. India has also pledged to restore 26 million hectares of deforested and degraded land and China says it will aim to plant and conserve 70 billion trees by 2030.

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ForestsFuture of the EnvironmentClimate Crisis
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