Skip to main content

Where the trees are disappearing

By Daniel J. Zarin
November 26, 2013 -- Updated 1553 GMT (2353 HKT)
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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT