Originally published in The Environmental Magazine
Since humans began cutting down forests, we have felled approximately 46% of all trees. Today, we are losing about a soccer-field’s worth of forest every second. Though approximately 30% of the world’s land area is still densely covered by trees, much of this forest will disappear if the current rates of deforestation continue.
This is a very big problem, not only for the animals species that call forests home, but for humanity as well. Forests provide innumerable medicines and products, reduce the severity of natural disasters, prevent erosion, and are home to millions of people who depend on them for survival. Perhaps most importantly, forests sequester carbon and regulate the environment. This fact is well illustrated by the U.N Food and Agriculture Organization’s statement that deforestation is responsible for approximately 20% of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than road, rail, sea, and air transport, combined.
Clearly, saving the forests should be one of our top priorities.
In order to better understand how we can achieve this goal, it can be helpful to understand the primary reasons why we are clearing so many trees. Contrary to popular belief, a demand for products such as wood and paper is not the primary cause of deforestation. In reality, the largest driver is the clearing of land for permanent agriculture, mining, and energy production. According to a 2018 study published in Science Magazine, this form of deforestation, also known as commodity-driven deforestation, was accountable for 27% of tree cover loss from 2001 to 2015.
Forestry related deforestation (cutting forests down for tree derived products) was a close second during the same time period, accounting for 26% of tree loss. The latter type of deforestation differs from the former in several ways. The most important of which is that forests felled for tree harvesting are generally allowed to regrow. Therefore, though this method still has a negative effect on the surrounding ecosystems, it is far easier on the climate. Once felled forests regrow, they will once again begin to sequester carbon, provide habitat, and prevent erosion.
Another important driver, estimated to account for 24% of deforestation, is shifting agriculture. In this system, farmers clear an area of forest and then plant it with crops. Unlike commodity-driven deforestation however, the cleared area is usually abandoned after a few years, after which it can begin to regrow. The amount of harm this system creates varies tremendously based on where farmers practice it. If they clear virgin forest forest for agriculture (or any other purpose), it is usually a huge loss from a biodiversity standpoint. This holds even if the plot of cleared land eventually regenerates. On the other hand, cutting down a plot of second or third growth forest for a finite period of farming can sometimes be relatively harmless. Another factor important factor to consider when analyzing this driver of deforestation is the method of agriculture that farmers choose to practice. Said method will often play a huge role in the land’s ability to recover.
The final primary cause of deforestation is wildfire. This driver accounted for 23% of total deforestation during the time period the study in Science analyzed. Though forests affected by fire will usually regrow at some point, fires still release a tremendous amount of carbon into the atmosphere. It is generally accepted that climate change has increased the frequency and magnitude of wildfires.
Any effort to tackle deforestation must take into account the cause of deforestation it is attempting to address. Clearly, a strategy used to prevent deforestation from wildfires will differ significantly from a strategy aimed at saving a section of forest resting on top of a valuable mineral deposit. Addressing issues of the latter nature can be incredibly difficult, both from a technical and ethical standpoint; In many instances, the humans responsible for the felling of trees are poor farmers, simply trying to feed their families.
Thankfully, solutions exist that can benefit all parties. One of the most straightforward is simply paying farmers in the developing world to not cut down the trees growing on their land. Many such farmers make so little growing food that they are happy to cease deforestation in exchange for relatively small annual payments. So small in fact, that this strategy can be more economically appealing than using carbon capture technology to remove greenhouse gases from the air. In instances when payments to counter deforestation are not an option, another excellent strategy is to teach farmers growing techniques that are less damaging to the land. For example, NGOs can instruct farmers how to employ permaculture techniques that reduce or eliminate the need for the clearing of a new patch of forest every growing season.
An alternate route that many NGOs have taken is seeking to empower indigenous people who call the forests home. Giving these groups a voice and sharing their stories is an excellent way of demonstrating how deforestation directly impacts people, and not just plants and animals.
On an international scale, the creation of tradable carbon offsets has been widely touted as a way for rich countries to economically encourage the preservation of forests. While the results from offset programs have been somewhat mixed, there are plenty of signs that such programs have the potential to become very effective.
If you would like to help preserve the world’s forests, there are many ways in which you can do so.
Farmers clear massive portion of the world’s forests to make way for the production of palm oil, soy, and beef. If you use any of these products, it’s a good idea to make sure that they are coming from environmentally conscious companies. When buying these, and other general products, look for the presence of a certification from The Rainforest Alliance or The Forest Stewardship Council. Both organizations are doing a great job certifying companies that conduct their business in forest friendly ways. You can also buy carbon offsets yourself. If properly allocated, these offsets can provide you with a simple and relatively inexpensive way of neutralizing your entire annual carbon footprint.
To learn about more ways in which companies and individuals can combat deforestation, click here.
Note: When purchasing carbon offsets, beware of deceptive organizations that offer false or ineffective credits.