Million in peril as deforestation takes its toll on the tropics

A new study warns the pledges made at the COP26 summit need to be implemented as the growing levels of deforestation are putting millions of people at risk.

The study, authored by a multidisciplinary team from Duke University, the University of Washington, and The Nature Conservancy, compares established recommendations on safe working conditions with satellite and population data to show how warming associated with recent deforestation (between 2003-2018) has increased heat exposure for 4.9 million people globally, including 2.8 million outdoor workers.

As such the team behind the study said commitments made in Glasgow haven’t come a moment too soon for communities on the front lines of forest loss, as the research highlighted the extent to which local temperature rises in the world’s tropics – compounded by accelerating deforestation – are already jeopardising the wellbeing and productivity of outdoor workers.

Decreases in safe working hours were found to be particularly significant in deforested areas, compared with regions where the majority of tropical forest remains intact. The study also warned disproportionate heat exposure for populations working in parts of Brazil highlight future global warming projections, compounded by unchecked forest loss, will only exacerbate this situation. In the states of Mato Grosso and Pará, for example – even in the unlikely event of no further deforestation or population growth – the study projects that future global warming of +2°C relative to the present could see more than a quarter of a million people lose two further hours of safe working time per day compared with 2003.

Commenting on the study’s significance, lead author Luke Parsons of Duke University, who led much of the research while in his previous role at the University of Washington, said: “Our findings highlight the vital role tropical forests play in effectively providing natural air-conditioning services for populations vulnerable to climate change – given these are typically regions where outdoor work tends to be the only option for many, and where workers don’t have the luxury of retiring to air-conditioned offices whenever the temperature rises to intolerable levels.”

Senior co-author Nick Wolff from The Nature Conservancy added: “We already knew that tropical deforestation is associated with localised temperature rises, but given the accelerating warming being experienced across the planet, we’re calling for an urgent redoubling of research into how these changes are impacting vulnerable human populations across the Tropics. The various commitments to halting and reversing deforestation that came out of Glasgow were just a start – now we need to see this goodwill rapidly converting into tangible action on the ground.”

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