Climate 101: Deforestation explained
Deforestation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This means that chopping down trees is definitely bad news when it comes to the climate crisis.
But the damaging effects of deforestation go much further than just polluting gases. In this article, we’re taking a look at the causes and effects of deforestation, to understand why trees are vital for fighting climate change and why we need to stop cutting them down.
What is deforestation?
Deforestation is best defined as the clearing, destruction or permanent removal of the world’s forests, either deliberately or accidentally.
Forests cover about 30% of the planet’s land mass, and are crucial for stabilising our climate. As well as taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they protect biodiversity, regulate ecosystems and support livelihoods. But humans are destroying them at an alarming rate. According to the World Bank, we cut down over 1.3 million square kilometres of forest between 1990 and 2016, an area larger than South Africa.
The damaging effects of deforestation are numerous and wide-ranging, not least its contribution to climate change. And conversely trees are one of the best tools we have to fight the climate crisis. The 2019 IPCC special report of Climate Change and Land stated that “planting forests and protecting existing forests is key to all pathways for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius”. But why are forests so important for fighting climate change?
Why do we need trees?
Trees are important to our planet for a number of reasons. For starters, as trees grow they absorb carbon dioxide, the polluting gas released by burning fossil fuels. These gases contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. Forests act as valuable carbon sinks, removing these gases from the atmosphere and locking them away. Deforestation and land degradation makes these carbon sinks less effective. Scientists estimate that tropical tree cover alone could provide 23% of the climate mitigation needed over the next decade to meet goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
But it’s not just sucking up CO2 that makes trees important. Forests also have critical local cooling power, equivalent to more than 2 air conditioning units per single tree. This helps to regulate climates at a local level by providing shade on the ground and transpiring water. Deforestation results in increases in local air temperature, especially damaging in tropical countries where temperatures are already high.
Causes of deforestation
Over half of all global deforestation results from farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling. Four commodities in particular drive this: cattle, soy crop, palm oil and timber. Forests are cleared to make way for livestock and to grow crops, especially soy and palm.
These commodities are found in many value chains across different sectors. In fact, the average company has 24% of its revenue dependent on at least one of these four commodities.
The exact reason for deforestation varies from country to country. For example in Malaysia and Indonesia, forests are cut down to make way for producing palm oil, a commodity that makes its way into lots of our food and beauty products. In the Amazon, soy plantations and cattle farms are guilty of causing widespread deforestation.
The meat industry is especially culpable when it comes to deforestation. Not only are forests cleared to make room for livestock such as cows, pigs and poultry, more land is cleared to grow the soy crop that they eat. Over 80% of the world’s soy crops go straight to feeding animals, and not to making tofu, as some questionable news articles would like us to think. Only about 6% of the world’s soy crop is used directly in food products like soy sauce and soy milk. So it should come as no surprise that reducing the amount of meat in our diets globally would go a long way to slow the rate of deforestation.
The logging industry, which provides the world’s paper and wood products, is responsible for chopping down countless trees every year. Recycled paper and wood initiatives are a great start to tackling this problem, but unfortunately they are moving nowhere near quick enough to reduce the rate of deforestation. Illegal logging is also a huge concern, as the main cause of forest degradation.
Some deforestation is unintentional, such as overgrazing and wildfires, both of which destroy trees. As climate change continues and the human population expands, these factors are set to contribute more to deforestation in the future. Some amount of tree loss is natural, but when added to the accelerated rate of human deforestation, the dangers for our environment are higher.
The environmental effects of deforestation
Today, deforestation causes 15% of global emissions, making it the second largest source of anthropogenic emissions on the planet. If tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third in carbon dioxide emissions, coming behind only China and the United States.
Annual carbon dioxide emissions from tree cover loss in tropical countries averaged at 4.8 gigatons per year between 2015 and 2017. This is more emissions than 85 million cars would cause over their entire lifetime.
The loss of trees and vegetation has numerous damaging effects including:
- Climate change
- Soil erosion
- Fewer crops
- Increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
The threat of deforestation on biodiversity
80% of the world’s land animals and plants live in forests. Trees provide shelter for animals as well as temperature regulation that makes it a liveable climate for many species.
Deforestation destroys these habitats and results in more drastic temperature variation which is hostile to many plants and animals. This has pushed many species to the brink of extinction, including orangutans and Sumatran tigers. To take one example, the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet and is home to thousands of species that exist nowhere else. Approximately 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed in just 50 years, and the rate of deforestation here is on the rise, threatening animals, insects, and plants that live here.
Impact on water cycles
Deforestation also has a damaging effect on the world’s water cycles. Trees help control the level of water in the atmosphere, regulating the water cycle. In Brazil for instance, rainforests influence regional water cycles, as well as supplying water to Brazilian cities and neighbouring countries. In deforested areas, there is less water in the air to be returned to the soil.
Soil erosion and flooding
Trees help retain water and nutrient-rich topsoil on the land, which in turn supports crops and forest life. When forests are destroyed, the soil erodes and washes away, leaving the land barren. This has a damaging effect on plants that grow here and the livelihoods of farmers who depend on this land to grow crops. Without trees, this land is also more vulnerable to flooding, especially in coastal areas.
The social effects of deforestation
Approximately 250 million people living in savannah and forest areas depend on trees for subsistence and income. These people are often located in poor rural communities in developing countries. When trees are chopped down and land degraded, their livelihoods are put at risk.
What’s more, deforestation threatens the 60 million indigenous people who live in and depend on the world’s forests. Governments often try to evict indigenous communities in order to cut down trees, disrupting their entire way of life.
What can we do about it?
There are many brilliant charities and organisations working to halt deforestation and protect our trees. We need to slow deforestation and plant trees to restore lost tree cover and replenish our carbon sinks.
Businesses have a responsibility to interrogate their supply chains and see where they may be complicit in or responsible for deforestation. This includes products, suppliers, and materials used in shipping and delivery. Companies need to be more transparent about this so that they can be held accountable. Since companies are responsible for such a large percentage of emissions, it should also be up to them to deliver the necessary reductions.
As individuals, we can put pressure on governments and institutions to take action against deforestation around the world. We can also consider our own consumer habits, from the food we eat to the goods we buy. Looking for recycled materials and sustainable farming practices will help reduce the demand that drives chopping down trees. Keep an eye out for Rainforest Alliance certification, which marks products they consider to be sustainable, and the World Wildlife Fund has produced a palm oil scorecard for consumer brands.
Planting trees for our future
The importance of trees in our planet’s future should be clear by now. As well as halting deforestation, we also need to work to restore the forests that have been destroyed and degraded.
And this is why every Treepoints subscription includes tree planting to restore the world’s forests and carbon sinks. We plant trees in over 9 countries around the world, working with Eden Reforestation Projects to ensure sustainable and responsible reforestation that helps communities as well as planting trees. You can read more about our tree planting here.