clock menu more-arrow no yes
A view of giant trees shot looking straight up.

2021 was a game-changing year for trees

Could this be the decade we stop cutting down forests?

Giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park, California.
| Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images

It’s not every year that firefighters wrap the world’s largest living tree in an oversized aluminum blanket. But there they were this fall, in California’s Sequoia National Park, covering the 36-foot-wide base of the tree known as General Sherman to protect it from the state’s devastating fires.

Images of the wrapped giant seem to symbolize the world’s race to protect forests in the face of everything from extreme heat to a booming beef industry. Many trees burned this year across the West Coast and Canada, and others were deliberately cut down.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest reached its highest level in more than 15 years. And the consequence of losing all of those trees became clearer than ever: A study published in July found that parts of the Amazon now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb, contributing to rapid global warming.

But there was plenty of hope, too. General Sherman survived, for one. And scientists discovered a handful of new forest-dwelling species, including what’s likely the world’s smallest reptile.

In the fall, firefighters wrapped the giant sequoia tree called General Sherman in sheets of foil to prevent it from burning down. It was among the sequoias threatened by the KNP Complex fire in Northern California.
Gary Kazanjian/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden started undoing several Trump-era policies that harm forests, and leaders around the world committed to halting or reversing deforestation by the end of the decade. These sweeping promises have the potential to shape the world’s forests for decades to come.

Here are our biggest takeaways from 2021, a year of trees.

America pivoted from forest enemy to forest advocate

The year started out bleak for some of the nation’s most important forest ecosystems. The outgoing Trump administration slashed federal protection for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest — and finalized a rule to stop protecting more than 3 million acres of the Pacific Northwest that’s home to the northern spotted owl, a threatened bird.

Biden reversed these policies, and others, after taking office.

“We’ve now had 12 months to get us back to where we were in 2016,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a research and advocacy group. “I don’t know if you can call that progress as much as it is stopping the bleeding.”

A northern spotted owl in Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco, California.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

But in January, Biden also announced that the US would aim for “30 by 30” — a goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030, which dozens of other countries have committed to.

“We’ve never seen a president make that kind of big conservation promise right off the top,” Weiss said.

Since then, the goal has faced pushback from across the political spectrum. In the US, some right-wing activists are already campaigning against the target and calling it a federal land grab. Internationally, advocates for Indigenous rights worry that local communities might lose access to their land as governments protect more areas.

Still, the initiative could be a game-changer for US land conservation, Weiss said. Unlike some efforts to protect nature in the past, Biden’s plan, spearheaded by the Interior Department, mentions tribal rights and aims to help low-income communities access nature.

Last summer’s devastating wildfires may also come with a silver lining: much-needed government money for restoring forests. The Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act — which passed in the House but awaits a vote in the Senate — would invest billions of dollars into preventing forest fires and protecting forest habitats for threatened animals. Experts told Vox this fall that, should it pass, the act could be monumental for the nation’s forests.

We’re still discovering what lives in the world’s forests

It may seem like we’ve explored every corner of the Earth, from the tops of the tallest trees to the underground web of fungi that connects them. But there’s still a near-endless opportunity for discovery if you know where to look, said E.O. Wilson, a renowned biologist. Scientists have only described a small fraction of the world’s 9 or so million species, he pointed out.

“It would be enormously productive and useful if we made more of an effort to identify all of the species on Earth,” Wilson, 92, told Vox in December. “We need to have a more complete and productive understanding of how to care for the life that we’ve inherited.”

A thumbnail-sized chameleon resting on top of a finger.
Scientists described a new species of chameleon in 2021 called Brookesia nana that could be the world’s smallest reptile.
Frank Glaw/AP

In other words, we need to know what we have to lose. Even today, scientists are discovering new creatures, and not just microbes and small insects. This year alone they described at least two dozen new species, ranging from reptiles and amphibians to insects and flowers. Many of them depend on the very forests that governments are promising to protect, such as Brookesia nana, a thumbnail-sized chameleon native to the rainforests of northern Madagascar. It may be the smallest reptile on Earth; it’s certainly the cutest.

A global pledge to halt deforestation helps more than it hurts

This year also ushered in major pledges and financing for trees. At the UN’s big November climate conference in Glasgow, more than 100 global leaders vowed to end deforestation by 2030 — a commitment that governments and private companies backed with $19 billion. In April, a number of countries, including the US and Norway, also launched a coalition that will pay countries that can show they’re preventing deforestation.

But countries have tried these strategies before, and they haven’t worked. At a UN climate summit in 2014, for example, dozens of governments signed a pact called the New York Declaration on Forests, which similarly aimed to end the destruction of forests by 2030. Yet forest loss worldwide has trended up, not down, ever since. (Some countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, however, seem to be bucking the trend.)

“We have had many declarations before and nothing has changed,” said Kimaren ole Riamit, an Indigenous leader in Kenya and executive director of the nonprofit Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners. “There’s very little to inspire us,” he said.

Government officials inspect a deforested area in the northern Brazilian Amazon on September 22, 2021.
Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil, which signed the recent pledge, has further eroded trust in these kinds of grand declarations, said Alain Frechette, director of strategic analysis and global engagement at the land-rights group Rights and Resources Initiative. Brazil was once a poster child for slowing deforestation, but now it’s surging once again, under right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro. “How seriously can we take this global agreement if Brazil is going to be part of the solution?” Frechette said. “Is Bolsonaro suddenly going to change?”

But it’s still better to have the pledge than to not have it, said Frances Seymour, a forest researcher at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization. The promises that countries and corporations made in Glasgow will also likely do more for forests than the 2014 declaration, she said. Major economies like China are involved this time around. Plus, CEOs of more than 30 financial institutions supported the pledge with a promise to stop investing in activities that destroy forests.

The new pledge could change norms around the world, Seymour says, if it helps make it unacceptable to destroy forests — just as it’s increasingly unacceptable to, say, pollute the atmosphere by burning coal. “That’s a positive sign,” she said.

Indigenous people are finally being recognized in plans to protect forests

Many of the world’s remaining stretches of healthy forests are found on lands owned or occupied by Indigenous people and local communities — groups whose cultures and livelihoods are deeply embedded in the land. These regions can also harbor a greater diversity of animals than formal protected areas. Yet for many decades, Western environmentalists largely ignored the role of Indigenous people in protecting nature, and in some cases removed tribes from their land in the name of conserving wildlife.

Indigenous activist Tarcila Rivera Zea attends a session at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland on November 9, 2021.
Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

That may be starting to change, at least on the surface, ole Riamit told Vox. “We have seen movement from resisting Indigenous people to an increasingly positive recognition of them on paper,” he said. For example, the UN’s draft strategy for conserving biodiversity mentions respect for the rights and knowledge of Indigenous people. And for the first time, this fall in Glasgow, “Indigenous knowledge holders” from across the world attended the UN climate summit, ole Riamit said.

But recognition is only a starting point, he added. “The political statement that Indigenous people have something to share is encouraging and welcomed,” he said, “but if we stop there it will just be ink on paper.”

What it would take to get people to stop cutting down forests

Researchers know how forests are destroyed — mainly, to clear land for cattle, soy, palm oil, and other agricultural commodities. So why can’t we save them?

For one, the public resources we put into protecting trees pale in comparison to the flows of money that destroy them, such as investments in new ranches and farms, Seymour said. Even with billions of dollars in funding and new government and corporate commitments, it’s like “swimming upstream in a tide of money,” she said. “What we’re doing to proactively protect forests is just completely incommensurate with the threat” they face.

Countries and companies should be held accountable for their commitments to ending deforestation, and we can’t wait for 2030 to check in on the progress, Seymour added.

Forest in Indonesia is burned on March 3, 2018, to make way for an oil palm plantation.
AFP via Getty Images

Ultimately, to stop the destruction of forests, we need a new economy and value system that’s not grounded in profit, ole Riamit argued. “We need to rethink how we relate to nature,” he said, and not just treat it like a “supermarket.” That’s of course easier said than done — but we can start by listening to Indigenous people, he added. “While it is difficult to prescribe a value system to a society, could we reflect a little more, possibly, about what Indigenous people can bring to the table?”

Giving Indigenous people ownership over their land is one of the most effective ways to conserve wildlife — and it benefits people and the climate, too, Frechette said. Unless local communities are part of climate solutions that involve forests, he added, they won’t work.

Over the last few weeks, Seymour has been having conversations with experts already looking ahead to the next big climate meeting in Egypt in 2022. She’s heartened that they’re asking what needs to happen in the next 12 months to make these commitments credible.

It’s “harder to get away with not doing anything” nowadays, she said — in part because technologies like satellite imagery reveal the countries where forests are felled or go up in smoke. “You can’t hide,” she said. “It’s at least a risk from a reputational point of view for these countries to make these pledges and then not follow through.”

One piece of good news is that forests can bounce back, if we let them be for a while. Research published this month found that tropical forests can recover many of their important features, such as soil health and other benefits that humans depend on, in as little as 10 or 20 years, without any help from humans. All we have to do is stop cutting them down.

Energy & Environment

The animal that’s everywhere and nowhere

China

What the Doomsday Clock is really counting down to

Energy & Environment

Democrats may have to sacrifice something big for the climate

View all stories in Energy & Environment