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What’s Going On With Deforestation Right Now?
Did you know that if we continue destroying forests at the rate we are doing today, Earth’s rain forests will disappear in the next 100 years?
Anyone who thinks the statement above is hyperbole probably hasn’t seen the numbers. In 1990, forests occupied 31.6% of Earth’s land area. By 2016, the proportion of land occupied by forests was about 1% lower at 30.7%.
The situation isn’t getting better as the tropics (the region of Earth surrounding the equator) were losing an area of forest equivalent to the size of a football field every six seconds in 2019. The destruction in 2020 was even worse. Deforestation is responsible for this rapid reduction in forest areas around the globe.
This article attempts to tell the story of deforestation using statistics. We start by presenting some quick statistics indicating how bad the problem of deforestation is. The article then focuses on the impact of deforestation on global warming, biodiversity, and livelihoods. Finally, we focus on what we can each do to reverse the damage caused by deforestation.
What Is Deforestation?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Deforestation implies the long-term or permanent loss of forest cover and implies transformation into another land use.” The FAO adds that “Such a loss can only be caused and maintained by a continued human-induced or natural perturbation.”
However, deforestation does not include situations when trees are removed because of sustainable logging or harvesting. It also doesn’t encompass instances where destroyed forests are expected to regenerate naturally.
From the above definitions, we can describe deforestation as the process of clearing trees from a piece of land with no prospect that such trees will regenerate or be replaced with new trees. Trees can be cleared as a result of human activity or environmental changes related to human activity.
Deforestation Statistics At A Glance
How Bad Is Deforestation?
The fact that Earth’s tropical forests are decreasing rapidly is no longer disputed. But how bad is the situation?
The NASA Earth Observatory suggests that “The actual rate of deforestation is difficult to determine.” Adding, “Scientists study the deforestation of tropical forests by analyzing satellite imagery of forested areas that have been cleared.”
Difficult as it may be to determine the actual rate of deforestation, there are efforts by individual scholars and organizations that provide us with an idea of the rate at which forests are disappearing.
The FAO reports that “Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses.”
In a 2019 report published by NationalGeographic.com, Christina Nunez quotes the World Bank, which indicates that “Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) of forest.” This represents an area the size of South Africa.
Nunez also cites a study published in the Nature journal, which reports that “Since humans started cutting down forests, 46 percent of trees have been felled.”
The World Wide Fund (WWF) reports that “in the Amazon, around 17% of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching.” The WWF adds that “Deforestation in this region is particularly rampant near more populated areas, roads, and rivers, but even remote areas have been encroached upon when valuable mahogany, gold, and oil are discovered.”
How Is Deforestation a Problem?
There is a significant concern about the destruction of forests. Still, many people may wonder why the rapid destruction of forests is a problem. After all, some may argue that we need to get rid of forests to create spaces where we build cities, grow our food, and generate energy.
While it makes sense that we should use trees just like we use other natural resources, the problem lies in using these trees in a way that’s not sustainable, which could see all the rainforests disappear within a century.
Let’s look at some of the undesirable impacts of deforestation.
To understand the link between deforestation and global warming, let’s start by looking at some basic science about trees, carbon dioxide (CO2), and oxygen (O2). During a process known as photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen into the atmosphere.
Trees are only able to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere when they are alive. Once they are cut down, left to rot, or burned down, the carbon dioxide stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere.
An article published by ScientificAmerican.com answers the question, “Is it true that cutting and burning trees adds more global warming pollution to the atmosphere than all the cars and trucks in the world combined?”
The answer: “By most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads.” ScientificAmerican.com quotes the World Carfree Network (WCN), which says, “cars and trucks account for about 14 percent of global carbon emissions.” On the other hand, the same source says that “most analysts attribute upwards of 15 percent to deforestation.”
If carbon dioxide were to accumulate to levels that are too high, it would increase the greenhouse effect. In this situation, thermal energy is trapped in the atmosphere, resulting in warmer temperatures. The increase in the earth’s temperature is what is called global warming.
Forests are home to 80% of the world’s documented land-based species. The WWF notes that when forests are destroyed and these species lose their homes, “they are often unable to subsist in the small fragments of forested land left behind.” Adding, “They become more accessible to hunters and poachers, their numbers begin to dwindle, and some eventually go extinct.”
Within the next 25 years, it is estimated that 28,000 species will become extinct because of deforestation.
Loss of Jobs and Livelihoods
Many people’s livelihoods depend on forests. This is a reality acknowledged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which reports that “Deforestation and forest degradation impact the lives of 1.6 billion people whose livelihoods depend on forests.” Adding, “One billion of them are among the world’s poorest.”
How exactly does the degradation and reduction of forests impact livelihoods? The IUCN has the answer: “52 per cent of all land used for food production is moderately or severely impacted by the erosion of healthy soil.” Erosion happens when the ground cover provided by trees is no longer available. Ultimately, the erosion of the soil impacts food security.
The United Nations suggests that in areas where forests are sustainably managed and utilized, they can help reduce poverty and facilitate forest-based services and enterprises. The UN reports that “More than 60 million people are employed by forest-based industries” worldwide.
Dealing With Deforestation
The world faces a challenge regarding deforestation. However, the good news is that humans still have a chance to reverse the effects of deforestation.
One way of conserving forests has been the establishment of protected forests. The FAO reports that “Globally, 18 percent of the world’s forest area, or more than 700 million hectares fall within legally established protected areas such as national parks, conservation areas, and game reserves.”
Even though natural reserves provide a part of the solution, the FAO notes that these reserves are insufficient to restore diversity. This is because these reserves are often small and restrict the natural migration of species.
In certain areas, people are coming together to protect their forests. For example, in Tanzania, communities on the island of Kokota are involved in repairing the damage caused by deforestation on their island. According to NationalGeographic.com, these residents have planted over 2 million trees.
No matter how small our efforts, we can help reduce deforestation. Here are some things you can do starting today:
- Plant a tree. If each person on Earth planted a tree per year, we would have an extra 7.5 billion more trees every year.
- Use less paper because over 40% of all timber is used for making different forms of paper.
- Reduce demand for paper by recycling.
- Eat less meat as around 80% of forests cleared in the Amazon are cleared to make way for cattle ranching.
- Support companies that can prove that they sustainably source their wood products.
There are many more things we can do to help preserve forests. If each one of us contributes in a small way, the difference we make together will be enormous. However, we all have a choice: either we start doing whatever we can to stop deforestation, or we passively watch from the sidelines as the situation worsens.
What Efforts Are Being Put Into Reforestation?
Thankfully, the future isn’t as bleak as it might seem based on the above statistics. Thanks to a growing interest in the environment and sustainability, a great deal of effort is being put into reforestation.
Reforestation is the planting of trees in an effort to restock previously depleted forests. This process isn’t exclusively put in place in areas affected by deforestation, but a large majority of reforestation efforts are aimed at undoing the negative effects of deforestation.
Recently, the Trillion Trees Initiative was started in the United States to increase tree-planting efforts across the country. The initiative includes a plan to have over 60 billion trees planted by 2040. These trees alone would remove over half a billion tons of carbon dioxide every single year.
Reforestation efforts aren’t just taking place in the United States. India implemented a mass tree-planting initiative in 2016. One state set a world record during the initiative that will be challenging to break: 50 million trees planted in just 24 hours.
Similar tree-planting initiatives have taken place in many other countries. Ethiopia started the Green Legacy Initiative to plant four billion trees; Turkey planted over 300,000 trees in one day as part of the new National Forestation Day, and the Arbor Day Foundation promoted their #teamtrees initiative via popular YouTubers to garner attention for reforestation and plant over four million trees in one year.
It’s clear that agencies and environmental groups are passionate about undoing the damages of deforestation around the world.
What Are the Benefits of Reforestation?
Reforestation aims to reverse the adverse effects of deforestation. While planting new trees isn’t the only solution to the destruction of forests and woodlands, it certainly comes with a myriad of benefits.
Perhaps most importantly, reforestation helps remove the abundant carbon dioxide that is building up in our atmosphere. If CO2 levels continue to increase as they have been, experts maintain that global warming will continue to the point where it is irreversible. Planting new trees also helps to counteract the CO2 added to the atmosphere by human actions on a daily basis.
Reforestation naturally brings about new habitats for wildlife, encouraging biodiversity and, in some cases, helping to limit species endangerment.
New trees also help to provide cleaner water for consumption. Trees naturally scrub rainwater and runoff clean before it re-enters underground aquifers. More trees mean cleaner drinking water worldwide.