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 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 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 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT