Forests: a good news story (for a change)

I don’t think anyone is going to argue about how awful it is to hear about the current state of the world’s forests. Not just the loss of forests and their wildlife themselves, but the significant release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The most obviously devastating is the Amazon, still up in flames. Horrible statistics include the current burning of more than ~2,500 fires, an increase in the rate of forest loss by 60% since 2014, and more than 70,000 fires in the Amazon since the beginning of the year. This being primarily the result of deliberate, illegal lighting of fires to clear land for farming.

Smoke from burning Amazon rainforest drops São Paulo into sudden darkness, 20th August 2019 (Source: Leandro Mota/Twitter )

The planet’s far north is also burning. Huge wildfires in the Arctic, Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada have been blazing during their recent summer (over 600 wildfires have burnt more than 2.4 million acres of forest in Alaska alone, a state which has experienced the hottest month ever recorded in July 2019). Gargantuan forest fires in Siberia, which burned for more than three months, created a cloud of soot and ash as large as the countries that make up the entire European Union. Whiles fires in this part of the world are normal, they have become more frequent, intense and severe as a result of hotter than average temperatures.

The satellite image from 24th July 2019 on the left show fires as red dots and the concentration of black carbon particles released by fire (or soot) is shown on the right

It’s hard to imagine how that will be followed up by a good news story but we promise this is not clickbait!

While we have been witnessing many examples of deforestation around the world, that trend is currently being reversed in Europe. A forest boom has been occurring which means that today, more than two-fifths of Europe is covered by trees according to the European Commission. In fact:

  • Between 1990 and 2015, the area covered by forests and woodlands increased by 90,000 km2 – an area roughly the size of Portugal;
  • Forests cover almost a third of France;
  • Trees cover around 70% of Sweden, similar to Finland (however, not all of the forests are natural)
The Northern Lights dance above the trees in Lapland, Finland
(Source: REUTERS/Alexander Kuznetsov)

More trees is definitely positive news for the environment. But while newly planted forests definitely help to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere and mitigate climate change, ultimately they are no substitute for natural forests in maintaining microclimates (including local rainfall patterns) and protecting biodiversity.

Recent successful rewilding projects linked to an improvement in forest habitats are also a cause for celebration. These include:

  • Bison, the Netherlands and Romania – Dutch and Romanian European bison reintroduction programmes were declared successful after several years of conservation efforts. Wild cattle had been extinct in the Netherlands for two centuries. Now, national parks in these countries are seeing significant environmental benefits from the bisons’ grazing, with a consequent flourishing of flora and fauna.
  • Grey wolf, USA – one of the most famous (infamous?) examples of rewilding is the case of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park. There is some evidence that their presence has had impact on biodiversity, and new growth of trees previously grazed by elks.
  • Beaver, UK – the humble beaver was reintroduced to the Forest of Dean in late 2017 after driven to extinction 400 years ago. The forest has already benefitted from improvements to soil and complex wetland habitats, and their dams are a natural buffer to floods.

The European Green Belt – a 2003 conservation initiative to develop an ecological network along the former 12,500 km Iron Curtain – has also begun contributing to forming a corridor of forests and other habitats to maintain biodiversity and Europe’s natural heritage.

Layout of the European Green Belt (Source: Wikipedia)

It’s not necessarily complete doom and gloom for the Amazon.

Brazil has already developed a pioneering political framework to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Deforestation peaked in 2004, but dramatically reduced following environmental governance, and supply change interventions aiming to end illegal deforestation. Environmental laws were also passed to develop a national program to protect the Amazon, with clearing rates in the Amazon falling by more than two-thirds between 2004 and 2011.

It does seem hypocritical for western countries to argue against clearing of the Amazon for agriculture, after having done the same thing to our own landscapes. However, it is paramount that other countries help to develop ways to support economic activity in Brazil (agribusiness contributes more than 20% of Brazil’s GDP) and adjacent regions which does not depend on clearing of the Amazon, in addition to exerting economic pressure.

Research has found a significant number of currently degraded and unproductive pastures that could offer new opportunities for livestock, meaning that Brazilian farmers may not need to clear new land to graze cattle. New technical developments also offer the possibility of transforming extensive cattle ranches into more compact and productive farms – offering the same results while consuming less natural resources.

If you need any other convincing of how important it is that the whole world steps up to help protect the Amazon as one of Earth’s great natural resources, listen to the amazing David Attenborough in Our Planet – it will truly convince you.