Forests are important for absorbing carbon dioxide and maintaining the planet’s biodiversity of animals and plants. So, really, it’s not a good thing that we keep cutting down so many trees.
Last year, in fact, was a bumper year for deforestation. New data shows an 18 million hectare (45 million acre) loss of tree cover around the world, an area twice the size of Portugal. Over the last three years, trees have been disappearing as fast as at any time in the last 15 years.
The data comes from Global Forest Watch, a 70-group collaboration organized by the World Resources Institute. It was collected by University of Maryland and Google using imagery from the U.S. Geological Survey Landsat program.
Tropical countries lost more than half the trees. Cambodia (14.4%), Sierra Leone (12.6%) and Madagascar (8.3%) had the greatest percentage tree losses. Countries in West Africa make up half the top-10 list, while Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia are other hotspots.
It used to be that Brazil and Indonesia accounted for a lion’s share of tree loss around world, but rates of deforestation there have been slowing, particularly in Brazil, which has slowed its level of loss by 70% in the last decade. It shows that it’s possible to reduce logging and other forest uses, even in a fast-moving economy.
The data “confirms that deforestation is not just high in certain countries, it’s speeding up,” says Matt Hansen, a professor at the University of Maryland. “The next step is to use this information to improve forest protection and more equitably balance economic development with the invaluable ecosystem services forests provide.”
It’s important to note that the data only applies to losses of trees, not to the replanting of them (it isn’t captured by satellites as well). But the trend-lines are the same: we’re cutting down too many trees for our own good.