Deforestation is the cutting, clearing and removal of natural forest. Between 1990 and 2016 the world lost 502,000 square miles of forest as a result of deforestation, an area larger than South Africa.
Despite the impeding issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, deforestation rates have not slowed in recent years. In the past 15 years, tropical forest cover loss has doubled2. Deforestation is not an insignificant issue, it is one we must explore. Trees inevitably hold the answers too many of our global environmental issues. This post will therefore explain the causes of deforestation, why deforestation matters and the benefits of sustainable forestry.
Causes of deforestation:
More than half of global deforestation is caused by agriculture, grazing livestock, drilling and mining1. The production of palm oil, wildfires and urbanisation are further offenders of deforestation.
As shown, the causes of deforestation vary with place. Deforestation in Canada for example, is largely attributed by agriculture, also oil and gas extraction. In comparison, 70% of deforestation in the Congo is caused by deforestation for plantations.
- Mining – Rising demand and prices of materials encourages mining in tropical forests. Mining requires large infrastructure such as transport networks and power supplies.
- Logging – Wood-based industries such as paper and furniture require a copious amount of trees. 640 million trees are logged a year to produce paper products.3 Illegal logging is also a pervasive issue in forests and difficult to account for in statistics.
- Overpopulation – Means that we require more land for urban development. Larger populations also require more land for food production and farmland for livestock, leading to further deforestation.
- Agriculture and Livestock Ranching – Drives 80% of all tropical deforestation. As the global demand for meat products rise, so does the amount of space needed to produce livestock for meat. Millions of acres are cleared each year to make room to grow feed crops and for grazing pastures. Livestock operations occupy 45% of land globally4.
- Fires – Fires are set quickly and efficiently to clear space for livestock and crops. These intentional fires are known as ‘slash-and-burn’. In Brazil alone over 70,000 slash-and-burn fires were set in 2019, double that of 20184.
- Palm Oil – Ubiquitous in 50% of packaged supermarket products, this one oil accounts for 5% of tropical deforestation5. SouthEast Asia has seen the most destruction from palm oil – loosing 45% of forested areas between 1989 and 2016 to palm production6.
Changes in forest cover over the last decade:
- Data from 2019 shows tropical primary forest cover average at a loss of 4.2 million hectares per year. 2016 was a particularly radical year, loosing 6.1 million hectares per year. This data reflects areas of mature rainforest particularly important for carbon storage and biodiversity.
- Brazil alone accounted for 1/3rd of all primary forest cover loss in this time frame.
- Outside of the tropics, Australia witnessed immense forest cover loss as a result of the 2019/2020 wildfires. 2019 was the worst year on record, Australia saw a 6 fold increase in cover loss in comparison to 2018.
Why does deforestation matter?
If tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third in CO2e emissions.
Trees provide food and shelter for a diverse range of biodiversity. 80% of Earth’s plants and animals live in forests1. Forest environments provide a sanctuary for our species. Habitat loss is just one implication of deforestation.
Deforestation is a primary contributor to climate change. Slash-and-burn agriculture produces carbon dioxide when fires are set, warming the Earth’s climate. Naturally, vegetation acts as a carbon sink, storing carbon through photosynthesis. Burning can release hundreds of years of carbon dioxide in just a few hours. Deforestation accounts for 25% of global greenhouse gases because of this process9.
Reading this article is a great start! Here are some things you can do as an individual to curtail forest loss:
- Shop for sustainable forestry products – Look for certifications like the Rainforest Alliance and the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that products come from sustainable forestry practices.
- Eat less meat: 80% of deforestation is a result of agricultural processes. Meat production also requires feed production for the animals. By simply reducing your meat consumption, you can drastically cut your environmental footprint.
- Shop for sustainable palm oil (or palm oil free) – Unmanaged palm oil production is common in SouthEast Asia. By buying certified products you can ensure that you are not contributing to unsustainable production.
- Choose recycled paper – Paper products also include toilet paper and kitchen roll! Recycled alternatives are out there and are often good quality and a similar price to to average Andrex pack.
1 – Nunez, C. 2019. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation/.
2 – Leahy, S. 2017. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/06/tropical-deforestation-forest-loss-2017/.
3 – Holland, E. 2017. Available at: https://vocal.media/futurism/deforestation-causes-effects-and-solutions.
4 – Meek, T. 2019. Available at: https://sentientmedia.org/how-does-agriculture-cause-deforestation/.
5 – EPOA. N/A. Available at: https://palmoilalliance.eu/palm-oil-deforestation/.
6 – Vijay et al. 2016. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0159668.
7 – Weisse, M. and Goldman, E. 2020. Available at: https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/06/global-tree-cover-loss-data-2019.
8 – Butler, L. 2019. Available at: https://rainforests.mongabay.com/03-diversity-of-rainforests.html.
9 – Bennett, L. 2017. Available at: http://climate.org/deforestation-and-climate-change/.