Forests are an important part of the global ecosystem. Due to factors such as population and agricultural expansion, deforestation and illegal timber trade, current forest protection is facing a severe situation.
Many countries and international organisations actively participate in various projects, discuss and summarise experiences, strengthen cooperation and jointly promote forest protection.
The theme of the recently held International Forest Day 2021, promoted by the United Nations, has been “Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being”. The Portuguese UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has said that forests are vital to human well-being and the planet’s health, but the current rate of their disappearance is shocking. He has therefore urged governments, organisations and individuals to take urgent action to restore and conserve forests in order to sow the seeds for a sustainable future.
Currently, the statu quo of global forest protection does not give cause for optimism. The annual loss of global forests amounts to ten million hectares, the size of Iceland’s land surface. In its latest Global Forest Resources Assessment, FAO has pointed out that a total of 420 million hectares of world’s forests have been destroyed since 1990.
Forms of destruction include deforestation, destruction of forest land for agriculture or infrastructure development, etc. Data show that population and agricultural expansion are still the main reasons for deforestation, forest degradation and loss of forest biodiversity. According to the report, 40% of tropical forests were cleared between 2000 and 2010 due to large-scale agricultural development and 33% due to local subsistence agriculture.
Timber smuggling is also a major cause of forest degradation: in some countries, the destruction of 90% of tropical forests is connected to this illegal activity. In recent years, the extremely dry climate caused by climate change has led to frequent forest fires around the world and triggered a number of major indirect disasters.
In October 2021 the EU’s Joint Research Centre reported that 2019 was the worst year for forest fires in the world: in Europe alone, over 400,000 hectares of forests were destroyed and the area of nature reserves affected by fires also hit a new high.
The survival of forests is closely related to the sustainability of earth’s ecology. Carbon emissions caused by forest reduction are estimated to account for 12% to 15% of global emissions. As underlined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and by FAO in its above stated report, “the rate of deforestation and forest degradation is still alarmingly high. This is one of the main reasons for the continuing loss of biodiversity”.
The report states that, in order to reverse the severe situation of deforestation and biodiversity loss, countries need to make changes in food production and consumption, as well as protect and manage forests and trees as part of building integrated landscape ecosystems, so as to repair the damage already done.
Some countries and regions, particularly those with abundant forest resources (such as Brazil), are actively taking measures to strengthen forest protection and sustainable development and to achieve green economic transformation.
The Amazon is one of Brazil’s “calling cards”. Its rainforest has a total area of about 5.5 million square kilometres, over 60% of which is in Brazil, and the rest in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, (formerly British) Guyana, Peru, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and Venezuela. The Amazon rainforest is the largest and most species-rich rainforest in the world, accounting for 20% of the world’s forest surface. It is called the Earth’s lung and green heart.
The oxygen produced by photosynthesis accounts for a third of global oxygen. The carbon dioxide absorbed each year represents a quarter of its total uptake from the soil. Therefore, the Amazon Basin has a significant impact on the global climate and ecological environment.
With a view to protecting the rainforest, the Brazilian government has adopted strong environmental protection legislation to increase penalties for deforestation. The government implements a joint and centralized national policy of rainforest management and logging rights and develops sustainable logging. All logging operations in rainforest areas must be authorized by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Information on tree felling, including tree species, height, collection centre, etc., is to be entered into the management system for future traceability. Furthermore, Brazil has also strengthened the monitoring of small-scale logging activities with the help of high-definition satellite imagery, thus greatly improving the efficiency of rainforest protection.
The Peruvian government, in turn, is cooperating with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the private sector and farming communities to take measures to reduce deforestation, support sustainable rainforest development and improve the ecology and living conditions of the people living in rainforest areas.
Over one hundred private protected areas have been currently established throughout Peru to promote the development of sustainable agriculture, while supporting rainforest biodiversity.
Benin’s government has recently updated its forestry policies and regulations, and is improving the forestry tax system and vigorously developing forest resources. Benin has invested in view of achieving an annual increase of 15,000 hectares of planted forests and it has increased its timber production to 250,000 cubic metres per year, thus providing employment opportunities and increasing its public income.
In Tanzania, the government has cooperated with the relevant international organisations not only to formulate plans to protect the country’s forests and expand the size of forest reserves, but also to develop ecotourism projects to provide employment opportunities for communities around the nature reserves.
The European Union has issued a number of policy documents in recent years, thus closely integrating forest protection with climate change and biodiversity protection policies. In 2003, the EU formulated a special action plan to combat illegal logging and trade.
In December 2019, it announced an action plan to promote the global protection and restoration of forests, and proposed priority guidelines for their protection, including new regulatory measures, enhanced international cooperation and support for innovation and research.
In early 2020, the EU established a joint and centralized forest information system and plans to carry out future monitoring projects on nature and biodiversity, forests and climate change, forest health and ecological economy.
Thanks to a substantial reduction in deforestation, large-scale afforestation and natural growth of forest land in some countries, the rate of forest loss has slowed down significantly. Compared to the sixteen million hectares of forest from 1990 to 2000, the global forest and the area shrinkage from 2015 to 2020 has been reduced, but there is still much room for improvement.
With a view to strengthening ecological protection, this year FAO and UNEP have launched the United Nations Ecosystem Restoration Decade. Strengthening global cooperation and restoring degraded and damaged forests and other ecological resources have become a major focus of international relations.
FAO stated that the objective of the multilateral Treaty Aichi Biodiversity Targets (the Convention on Biological Diversity, which became effective on December 29, 1993) was to protect at least 17% of the world’s land surface through the forest reserve system. That aim was achieved in 2020, but all parties need to make further efforts to ensure this protection.
The international community is also actively exploring cooperation projects to promote global management of forest resources among countries. FAO, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, UNEP and other international agencies have collaborated in the development of the Amazon Integrated Protection Area Project, which involves nine countries and regions.
The project promotes effective and coordinated supervision of the Amazon reserve, and helps reduce the impact of climate change on that ecological zone and improve residents’ resilience to environmental change.
The African Union Development Agency (Auda-Nepad), the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and other institutions have jointly launched the African Forest Landscape Restoration Plan, which aims to restore 100 million hectares of forests in Africa by the end of 2030 in order to improve food security, enhance countries’ adaptability to climate change and eradicate rural poverty: over 20 African governments, as well as technical and financial partners, are participating in the plan.
The lesson to be learnt is that we must stop behaving like the Brazilian governments of years ago. Due to their lack of environmental awareness, since the 1970s the Brazilian governments have been destroying forests and reclaiming wastelands in the Amazon region, building road networks and vigorously developing agriculture and breeding activities.
Illegal deforestation and forest fires, as well as the building of dams and the construction of mines, have caused unprecedented damage to Amazon forests and protected areas.
In recent years, the area of tropical rainforests has decreased at an alarming rate. On average, a forest the size of a football pitch disappears there every eight seconds.
There is still a long way to go before forests and humans can co-exist more harmoniously.
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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