Skip to main content

Where the trees are disappearing

By Daniel J. Zarin
updated 10:53 AM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
Informal gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru causes extensive and accelerating deforestation.
Informal gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru causes extensive and accelerating deforestation.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Zarin: Loss of native tropical forests accounts for 10% of carbon emissions
  • Zarin: We have never been able to track how much and where trees are disappearing
  • Zarian: A new online interactive shows exactly where forests are vanishing and how fast
  • Countries now can be held accountable, he says, for "zero deforestation" pledges

Editor's note: Daniel J. Zarin is a tropical forest expert and the director of programs for the Climate and Land Use Alliance.

(CNN) -- The loss of native tropical forests accounts for more than 10% of the carbon emissions responsible for the changing climate, receiving much-deserved attention at the recent U.N. climate change conference in Warsaw.

When forests are cleared and burned, the carbon contained in the trees and other vegetation -- roughly half of their dry weight -- is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. Most of the carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity come from fossil fuels. But native tropical forests average about 150 tons of carbon per hectare, and millions of hectares are cleared and burned every year.

Daniel J. Zarin
Daniel J. Zarin

Over the past decade, governments and industry have responded to growing pressure to reverse deforestation, sometimes committing to reducing it to zero. But with few exceptions, we've lacked the tools to assess accountability.

This changed when Science magazine published a groundbreaking analysis of annual deforestation on the entire planet between 2000 and 2012. With the help of Google Earth and using advanced computing techniques, University of Maryland professor Matthew Hansen and his colleagues analyzed unprecedented amounts of satellite imagery at a 30-meter scale.

The area cleared of trees stops at the border of a reservation in northern Brazil.
The area cleared of trees stops at the border of a reservation in northern Brazil.

Their work allows anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone and a decent Internet connection to see clearly where the world's forests are growing and where they are being destroyed.

Go to Global Forest Change and click on different regions. Use the pulldown menu to see the state of forests all over the world from 2000 to 2012, using several measurements. Go to the damage locations like the swath of the Alabama tornado, Siberian forest fires, palm oil plantations in Borneo, and many more. Distant regions are close at hand, the range of forests becomes easy to grasp, and the speed at which many of the forests are vanishing grows far more difficult to ignore.

More than 60 governments have signed on to the World Wildlife Fund's pledge to achieve "zero net deforestation" by 2020. The pledge specifically excludes offsetting native forest loss with tree plantations, although regrowing forests on abandoned lands can be subtracted from any "gross" deforestation.

With the new digitized maps and data available online, civil society watchdogs can and should hold governments accountable for making progress toward their targets.

How Sumatra fights deforestation
How deforestation changes lives
Can Madagascar cope with deforestation?
Brazil's controversial forest code

Similar zero-deforestation pledges have been made by corporate leaders, including the board of the Consumer Goods Forum, a mammoth private sector consortium that includes hundreds of companies with combined revenues of more than $3 trillion annually.

Most tropical deforestation is driven by growing global demand for agricultural commodities like beef, soya, palm oil and paper. Members of the consortium have promised to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains for those products. Ensuring the transparent flow of information from analyses like the one published in Science last week will be essential to keeping the private sector accountable.

It is now possible to track what's happening in the remote regions of Brazil, Indonesia or Africa (PDF) or in the forests of the Russian Far East. For the past 25 years, we've had this kind of data only for the Brazilian Amazon. Every year when the Brazilian Space Agency releases its numbers, scrutiny ensues in Brazil and internationally.

Few governments have possessed the combination of information and candor about their forests that the Brazilians have exhibited for the Amazon. And until 2012, as reported in Science, the trend had been looking good in Brazil.

But on the same as this new report in Science was published, the Brazilian government announced dispiriting news from the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Warsaw: Deforestation in the Latin American nation had reached 5,843 square kilometers (2,256 square miles) between August 1, 2012, and July 31, 2013, up from 4,751 a year ago. Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira called this increase unacceptable and said the government would not tolerate any rise in illegal deforestation, calling it a crime.

Already, the issue has become fodder for next year's presidential election. Teixeira and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff are accountable to their national climate change policy, passed by the Brazilian National Congress in 2009. That law included a target for reducing Amazon deforestation to 3,900 square kilometers by 2020, an 80% drop from the average rate of forest loss from 1996 to 2005.

Many developing countries simply lack sufficient knowledge of their forests, and many use questionable accounting practices. In Indonesia, the Ministry of Forestry has insisted that no deforestation happens when plantations for pulp and paper production replace native forests. Following that logic, you could completely replace some of the most biodiverse, carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth with monoculture acacia farms and brand them as "zero-deforestation."

When we say that knowledge is power, we mean that people with access to knowledge have power and those without it are powerless. Transparency is the democratization of that critical access. Without it, governments and corporations are unaccountable.

Overall, Hansen and his colleagues report that the deforestation trend in the tropics is worsening. Brazil's success at reducing forest loss through 2012 was more than offset by increased losses in Indonesia, Malaysia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Zambia, Angola and elsewhere. These and other results and their interpretations will surely be scrutinized and may be improved upon, because they are freely accessible in digital form.

While government and corporate leaders increasingly profess the virtues of transparency and accountability, the translation of their words into practice has often lagged. But with our new access to digital information, gaps between words and deeds can and should be quickly exposed, even in the most remote regions of the planet. This is good news for all of us concerned about the forests, the people who depend on them and global climate change.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel J. Zarin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT