Calls for forests to be high on Cop26 agenda after loss of 42,000 sq km of tree cover in key tropical regions

Smoke billows from a fire in the Amazon rainforest in Oiapoque, Amapa state, Brazil, last October. Photograph: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

The rate at which the world’s forests are being destroyed increased sharply last year, with at least 42,000 sq km of tree cover lost in key tropical regions.

According to data from the University of Maryland and the online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, the loss was well above the average for the last 20 years, with 2020 the third worst year for forest destruction since 2002 when comparable monitoring began.

The losses were particularly severe in humid tropical primary forests, such as the Amazon, the Congo and south-east Asia. These forests are vital as carbon sinks in the regulating the global climate, as well as for their irreplaceable ecosystems.

Losses from this type of forest alone amounted to 4.2m hectares (10.4m acres), equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of more than 575m cars, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), which compiled the report.

The tropics lost 4.2m hectares (10.4m acres) of humid primary forests in 2020, an area the size of the Netherlands

Altogether, 12.2m hectares of tree cover were lost in the tropics in 2020, an increase of 12% on 2019.

Brazil’s forested areas fared the worst, with 1.7m hectares destroyed, an increase of about a quarter on the previous year. Fires swept through the Amazon at a greater rate than in the previous year, despite the government imposing a ban on the use of fires to clear trees and deploying soldiers to curb the practice.

The government of Jair Bolsonaro has presided over a massive increase in deforestation, after a long period of improvements in reducing the destruction.

Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at WRI, said: “Brazil had achieved a huge reduction in deforestation, but we are now seeing the unravelling of that success, and it is heartbreaking.”