We all know that our world has been suffering from the effects of deforestation. If this continues unabated, we will see not only a significant loss of biodiversity but also a potentially significant negative impact on global warming. Whilst we often read about this in the press, I thought it would be useful to pull together some numbers that help to illustrate the scale of the problem.
Tropical forests are important
Tropical rainforests only cover about 2% of the earth’s land mass, so on that basis you might imagine they can’t be that important. However, this relatively small environment contains 50% of all the life on the planet’s land surface. This includes an incredible variety of different animal and plant species.
Tropical forests also absorb a huge amount of carbon from the atmosphere and therefore play an important role in slowing global warming. Tropical forests currently hold more carbon than humanity has emitted over the past 30 years by burning coal, oil, and natural gas.
Indeed, overall, the world’s forests absorb one-third of the annual CO2 released from burning fossil fuels.
But deforestation is accelerating
We have been aware that deforestation is threatening these habitats for a long time but, unfortunately, the problem is getting worse rather than better.
Between 2000 and 2015, deforestation saw an average of 3 million hectares of tree cover disappear every year. But since 2016 that average has increase to around 4 million hectares a year.
Deforestation accelerated by a further 12% in the year 2019/2020, so there is no sign of any respite.
We are now in a situation where 30% of all the world’s forests have been cleared and a further 20% seriously degraded.
The Amazon Rainforest in Brazil is under the greatest threat
Deforestation as a problem is largely concentrated within a small number of countries that have large areas of tropical rainforest.
In 2020 around 40% of all global deforestation occurred in Brazil. In fact, Brazil has been consistently destroying around 1.5 million hectares of rainforest every year since 2016.
The next most serious problem can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has accounted for around 10-15% of deforestation in recent times.
Bolivia and Indonesia are the next most significant contributors, although, in the case of Indonesia the rate of deforestation has recently declined.
What causes deforestation?
We lose trees every year to a variety of causes, both natural and unnatural.
A major World Resources Institute study found that between 2001 and 2015 tree loss could be attributed to the following sources:
- 26% was lost as part of managed forestry. This is where trees in managed plantations are cut down for commercial timber. Most of these trees will be replaced over time, as the plantation owners would always replant after harvesting a timber crop.
- 23% are lost to wildfires. These may become more widespread with global warming but they are a natural phenomenon. Trees lost in this manner will also regenerate over time.
- 24% are lost to shifting patterns of agriculture. This is where forests are cleared and burnt, usually to free land for use in subsistence farming. In some cases the forests may grow back, in others the loss is permanent.
- Over 27% of forestry loss is the result of either urbanisation or commodity-driven deforestation. This kind of loss is the most serious and is almost always permanent.
Whilst growing urbanisation creates a demand for land that can threaten forests, the growth of human urban centres actually accounts for very little deforestation (just 0.6%).
So forests are not being cut down because people need space to live.
A far more serious problem is commodity driven deforestation, where forests are being cleared simply to allow us to grow commodity crops such as soy, palm oil or rear cattle. This accounts for 27% of forest loss and is a major cause of deforestation in countries like Brazil.
In Brazil the dominant form of deforestation can be attributed to commodity driven deforestation to clear land for cattle ranching (accounting for 63% of all Amazon deforestation between 2001 and 2013). Other significant culprits include commodity crops such as soy but cattle ranching for industrial meat production is by far and away the greatest threat.
What can be done?
The big question we face is what can be done about all this? How can we save our forests?
In the case of the Brazilian situation we can all make a limited impact by reducing our intake of processed meat. But ultimately real change can only be made if the Brazilian government can be persuaded to act. Unfortunately, at this time, with other priorities such as covid taking up so much political time, we are unlikely to see much positive action.
Now the Brazilian government have argued that the management of their own resources is their own affair. However, 10% of all the world’s wildlife species live in the Amazon and the Amazon rainforest accounts for 54% of all the world’s rainforests. It can therefore justifiably be viewed as an important global resource and we should all encourage our own governments to work more closely with countries like Brazil and Bolivia to stem the tide of deforestation in this region.
We might do this individually or by supporting organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund or Rainforest Alliance which are actively campaigning to help preserve these crucial environmental resources. But, whatever we do, we should all remember that we don’t have the luxury of time to solve these problems and, every year, a further 4 million hectares of forest are likely to disappear.
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