Deforestation and its effects
Since the industrial revolution humans have created cities and megacities: bustling centres of creativity, connectivity and culture. However, we forget that there have always been natural thriving hubs in the forms of forests and rainforests which are home to 80% the world’s land-based plants and animals, and are hyper connected ecosystems in themselves. In the process of building and running our modern systems, we have been destroying the ones that have been in place for thousands of years. This is deforestation. And it has to be stopped.
What is deforestation?
Deforestation is the word for removal or clearing of an area of trees to accommodate for non-forest use. In recent times deforestation has been happening at an unprecedented level – estimates suggest that the world is losing a football pitch size of forest every second, or the equivalent area to the size of Italy every year . This has naturally had terrible impacts on the environment, from the release of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere to the removal of carbon sinks and the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity. These effects, and why they are so important will be discussed in the following section.
Deforestation affects the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – particularly carbon dioxide – in two interconnected ways. Firstly, as trees are cut down or burned to clear land, they release the carbon dioxide that they are storing back into the atmosphere. Forest losses contribute about the same amount of carbon emissions to the global budget at the USA (the world’s second largest polluter) .
Secondly, since the trees have been cut down, they no longer play an active part in the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. The sequestration of carbon dioxide is a large mitigating factor to climate change, and it is estimated that tropical trees provide 23% of the cost-effective carbon mitigation needed before 2030 . These two impacts of deforestation are severe in the fight against rising GHG levels, rising global temperatures and climate change.
In addition to help regulate the earth’s climate, forests are home to 80% of the plants and animals that live on land . With the rapid and relentless rise in deforestation many of these species have become endangered or are facing extinction. Indeed, according to the WWF the number of wild animals living on earth has halved within the last 40 years , and with new trends showing that deforestation is at higher levels than ever before, the fate of the remaining wildlife on our planet looks increasingly at peril.
There are other consequences to deforestation that might not be as immediately obvious but are very concerning nonetheless. Zoonotic diseases (where pathogens are transmitted between animals and humans), such as COVID-19 are facilitated by activities such as land clearing . This is because there is an increased likelihood of contact between humans and animals that would not normally occur without deforestation. In the past this point would have seemed fairly minor, but in current circumstances we can see the widespread and catastrophic impact of these actions.
It is critical that the animals and plants are protected, but they are not distinct from each other but rather are interconnected in vast ecosystems with knock-on effects up and down the food chain. Furthermore, even these ecosystems are not just important in their own right, but have a larger contributing impact to carbon emissions as well. This is because carbon absorption is all about trees. Fully functioning ecosystems with a range of different trees as well as animals, peat-bogs, mangroves and bacteria work together in a way that is actually far-more efficient at sequestration and absorption of carbon dioxide.
In areas where there is a large amount of change in forest cover, the regional land surface temperature is directly affected. This is caused by exchanges of water and energy that occur differently with and without forest. In areas of higher forest cover in tropical regions, there are cooling effects that result in higher amounts of evapotranspiration and thus cooler days in the growing season .
Agriculture is widely regarded as the largest contributor towards deforestation. Although it is hard to precisely measure, it is estimated that between 3.5 to 7 billion trees are cut down each year, with agriculture accountable for almost 30% of that total. Around the globe, forests are being uprooted and destroyed in favour of crops such as tea, coffee, soy and palm oil. As well as this, many areas are being turned into grazing space and feed crops for animals, primarily for cattle. This is particularly a problem in developing countries which are producing food goods for global markets. In fact, 80% of global forest loss is due to the forest being converted into agricultural land to produce ‘forest risk commodities’ (soy, beef, palm oil), most of which is exported .
Cattle farming and beef production is the main global driver of forest loss, greater than soy and palm oil combined in countries most affected by forest loss . As countries become richer, diets increasingly switch to a greater consumption of meats, including beef. Cheap beef as produced by the South American nations on deforested land is then exported around the world, with higher and growing demand.
Soy is the second largest agricultural driver of deforestation. Although this is mainly grown in South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, it is exported around the world. This means that as well as contributing to deforestation, it also has a high carbon footprint, due to transportation. In fact, the EU is a large consumer of soybeans imported from South America, and of all the soy consumed within the EU, 83% goes to feed pigs and poultry .
Urban growth is another key driver in deforestation, especially in developing countries where there is still a large amount of rural to urban migration. This urban growth leads to higher levels of migration in two key ways. Firstly, due to the high levels of migration to cities, people generally have a change in consumption habits, and use more resources. Additionally as income rises for these individuals, their diets change to consume more animal products. This therefore leads to forest clearances to cater for increased consumption habits and a larger demand for animal products.
Secondly, deforestation also occurs as a direct, physical result of urban growth. With cities expanding at a fast rate, many of them are encroaching on natural habitats and forests, which are getting cleared to accommodate for this. Urban land coverage is set to increase further, as there is an ever increasing demand for housing and livelihoods in the city. Additionally, the infrastructure for these cities such as road and rail links also cut through forested areas. These roads make it easier for illegal loggers and poachers to operate.
Large swathes of forest are cut down every year to accommodate the world’s demand for wood and paper. Some estimates suggest that deforestation for logging in the tropics accounts for up to 15% of annual global GHG emissions.
Currently one of the largest causes of concern in terms of deforestation is the Amazon rainforest, often referred to as ‘the lungs of the earth’. Since his election in 2018 Bolsonaro, the Brazillian president has favoured pro-business policies, which environmentalists have flagged as a big cause for concern. This has involved promoting the detrimental export of goods such as wood, soy and beef – all of which are largely produced on rainforest cleared land. After a period of relative stability in the area, the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is “at its highest level for a decade” . Given this, it is more important than ever to fight deforestation. The next section looks at exactly how this can be done.
How can we fight deforestation?
It is essential for the health of our planet that we reduce the amount of deforestation. The IPCC reports that “all assessed modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5ºC or well below 2°C require land-based mitigation and land-use change, with most including different combinations of reforestation, afforestation, reduced deforestation, and bioenergy” . They also estimate that reducing deforestation lowers GHG emissions with the potential of 0.4-5.8 Gt CO2 per year. There is no disagreement about needing to protect the world forests, but many people are understandably unsure of what they can do to help. So how can we fight deforestation?
Firstly, decreasing the demand for tree clearing is a good place to start. The desire to deforest an area of land will always come from a monetary incentive, so reducing this incentive will naturally reduce the amount of trees that are cut down. Here is a list of suggestions that can help you identify products that cause deforestation.
Reducing and recycling paper is probably one of the simplest ways to help the fight against deforestation. It is also one of the most widely known and encouraged environmentally beneficial practices. With the increases in technology and IT services, it is easier than ever before to save paper both at work and at home. For example emailing documents instead of printing and mailing them can save thousands of sheets of paper annually. Another way to help is by going paperless on newspaper and magazine subscriptions, since most newspaper companies now offer online services. It almost goes without saying that you should always try and recycle as much as possible – saving new products being made saves trees being chopped down in order to make them!
Buying wood responsibly
Logging is a big factor causing deforestation globally. That means if you are buying wood products then it will have come from a deforested area, but don’t worry – we know that it is often necessary to buy these sort of things and there are still ways you can lookout for the planet when doing so. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a body concerned with working towards sustainable forest management and are a world leading standard for such causes. Purchasing FSC certified goods, will ensure that you aren’t accidentally supporting illegal logging or deforestation activities, but that you are also supporting companies that hold the same environmental values as you do.
Curb meat consumption
With animal agriculture being such a big contributing factor to deforestation around the world, one simple stop to combat it is to eat less meat. Not only does this reduce the demand on the land for the animal to graze, but also the demand for the land needed to grow products such as soy which is used to feed the animals. Since cattle grazing has the biggest share of deforestation accountability, a smaller step would be to simply stop eating beef. A simpler step still would just be to check the labels on the food you buy. Buying locally sourced food is almost always better for the environment and deforestation. Not only is it far less likely that the food has contributed to deforestation, but also there are lower transportation costs meaning a lower overall carbon footprint.
Don’t let palm oil get out of hand
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. According to the WWF it is an extremely versatile oil with multiple functions and staggeringly it’s in almost 50% of the packaged products that can be found in supermarkets!  This makes it very difficult to avoid buying palm oil altogether, however in a similar manner to the FSC with wood and paper products, The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certifies certain products that contain more sustainably sourced palm oil. The RSPO also supports transparency in product labels and sustainable land use initiatives.
The WWF also has a handy guide showing the stance on palm oil of some of the worlds biggest corporations, which can help you decide where to shop.
REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation is a United Nations backed incentive program offering a new way to reduce carbon emissions. The International Institute for Environment and Development explains that “REDD, as currently conceived, involves payments to developing countries that will prevent deforestation or degradation that would otherwise have taken place. The source of this funding can be from carbon trading, where actors in industrialised countries offset their own emissions by transferring funds as carbon credits to developing countries.”  One of the biggest benefits of REDD is that it is comparatively very cheap (e.g. as compared to renewable energy projects) and is a prevention rather than ‘cure’ strategy.
Forest management is the next step of the fight against deforestation. As well as reducing the amount of demand for deforestation goods, forest management has the potential to offset approximately 60% of the emissions reduction required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees . Forest management includes reforestation – the planting of trees – and restoration practices however these initiatives are harder to coordinate across large areas with multiple parties claiming authority and jurisdiction over different areas of the forest.
The role of indigenous communities has long been proposed as an important one in the fight against climate change. Indigenous communities consistently protect against deforestation and forest degradation. The carbon emissions within these communities is significantly below that of anywhere outside them. As well as this five times more deforestation occurs outside these indigenous communities than it does within it .
Sources Carrington et al. (2018).One football pitch of forest lost every second in 2017, data reveals. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2018/jun/27/one-football-pitch-of-forest-lost-every-second-in-2017-data-reveals  Gibbs, Harris and Seymour. (2018). By the Numbers: The Value of Tropical Forests in the Climate Change Equation. https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/10/numbers-value-tropical-forests-climate-change-equation  The World Bank. (2013). Forests and the Environment. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/forests/brief/forest-and-environment  Carrington. (2014). Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years says WWF. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/29/earth-lost-50-wildlife-in-40-years-wwf  Sheikh and O’Regan. (2020). Wildlife Trade, COVID-19, and Other Zoonotic Diseases. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11494  IPCC. (2019) Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/chapter/summary-for-policymakers/  FERN. (2019) What are the causes of climate change? https://www.fern.org/publications-insight/what-are-the-causes-of-deforestation-1975/  FERN. (2018). Agricultural commodity consumption in the EU – Policy Brief Agricultural commodity consumption in the EU. https://www.fern.org/publications-insight/what-are-the-causes-of-deforestation-1975/  FERN. (2017). Agriculture and Deforestation. https://www.fern.org/publications-insight/agriculture-and-deforestation-264/#:~:text=The%20biggest%20cause%20of%20forest,of%20deforestation%20after%20cattle%20products.  Watts. (2019). Amazon deforestation ‘at highest level in a decade’. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/18/amazon-deforestation-at-highest-level-in-a-decade  WWF. (2020). 8 things to know about palm oil. https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil  IIED. (2019). REDD: Protecting climate, forests and livelihoods. https://www.iied.org/redd-protecting-climate-forests-livelihoods.  Walker et al. (2019). The role of forest conversion, degradation, and disturbance in the carbon dynamics of Amazon indigenous territories and protected areas. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/117/6/3015.full.pdf
Subscribe to our Newsletter