Carbon Emissions Skyrocket In Deforested Southeast Asia

As forest clearance shifted to elevated areas in Southeast Asia, stockpiles of carbon have been lost at an accelerated pace in recent years.

AsianScientist (Sep. 1, 2021) – Southeast Asia’s once forested mountains have increasingly been stripped bare in the past decade, generating over 400 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year. The findings were published in Nature Sustainability.

From extreme heat waves to intense storms, the globe continues to reel from the worsening effects of climate change. Among various forms of environmental damage, forest loss is a major culprit, posing a devastating blow to global sustainability efforts.

Besides teeming with biodiversity, forests are vital carbon sinks that absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Deforestation not only often leads to widespread habitat and species loss, but releases carbon stockpiles into the air, impairing present and future climate resilience.

About half of all tropical mountain forests are found in Southeast Asia, storing a significant amount of the world’s carbon. But in recent years, an unprecedented amount of the region’s forests have been uprooted and cleared out, expanding from lowland forests to elevated areas, revealed a recent international study.

Led by Associate Professor Zhenzhong Zeng from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, the team analyzed high-resolution satellite data and found that Southeast Asia lost an average of 3.22 million hectares of forests annually since 2001. Even more astounding, a third of these forests were in mountainous areas.

In the early 2000s, deforestation activities were mostly confined to lowland areas, making space for agricultural endeavors. By the turn of the decade, however, high altitudes and steep slopes could no longer protect forest-covered mountains from disturbance, as new plantation sites took precedence in the region.

As forest loss accelerated and expanded upward, the researchers reported that carbon emissions similarly ramped up, with the data showing losses of 424 million metric tons of carbon per year. Maps of forests’ carbon stocks revealed that carbon emissions from lowland forest clearance declined during the 2010s, yet carbon loss from mountain forests rapidly escalated in the same period.

Such insights were previously obscured from scientists, as many current earth system models and climate assessment techniques cannot differentiate between mountain and lowland forest loss. For the team, these concerning results compound a growing list of warning signs to urge action against environmental degradation and climate change.

“This knowledge is valuable for developing strategies to reduce future losses of remaining forests that still have great ability to preserve valuable ecosystem services, including atmospheric carbon dioxide capture and biodiversity conservation,” the authors concluded.

The article can be found at: Feng et al. (2021) Upward Expansion and Acceleration of Forest Clearance in the Mountains of Southeast Asia.


Source: University of Leeds; Photo: Shutterstock.
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