So, what about deforestation?

A world without trees. Imagine it. Or even better, Carbomap CEO has imagined here. It is important that we share our knowledge of the natural environment, and the ecosystem services provided (more on this here and here), because of the threat that human societies can at times pose.

According to the FAO the rate of global deforestation is approximately 13 million hectares per year, which is an area of forest roughly the size of Greece or Bangladesh (or even 6 times the ‘Size of Wales’…). Every single year. This works out at approximately one football pitch of forest cut down every 2 seconds.

Deforestation is defined as a permanent reduction of tree canopy cover to below 10-30% of the original cover, and forest degradation defined as canopy reduction above this threshold. The resultant carbon emissions from deforestation account for up to 16% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, however this value is highly uncertain. In tropical regions there are many causes for deforestation, but the primary cause is land-use change. The specifics of these changes are highly dependent upon which part of the world you’re talking about, but common  causes are; subsistence farming, cattle ranching, soya cultivation, palm oil plantations, and logging for timber or charcoal production.

Brazilian Amazon, July 30th 2000 (NASA)

Brazilian Amazon, August 2nd 2010 (NASA)

Although it appears that money can be made from exploiting forest resources, it is difficult to determine the full cost of removing these vital ecosystems. However the economic value of this loss in forest ecosystem services is estimated to be between $2 and $4.5 Trillion per year [also see linked 1 to 4 below]. A complicating factor in this problem is that there is a disproportionate impact upon the countries least capable to deal with it. Despite the demands of developed countries being the major driver behind tropical deforestation, it is the developing countries that will feel the impacts most as it is their forests which are being lost.

The links between economics, deforestation, and poverty are highly complex; up to 1.3 billion of the poorest people on the planet depend on forests for their income. The loss of forest ecosystems could put schemes aimed at alleviating poverty in developing countries into jeopardy.

The draw of the short-term economic benefits to clearing forest areas is one which many countries in the world have succumbed to throughout history. Indeed, three quarters of the UK was covered in forest 6,000 years ago; compare that to the 12% forest cover we have now. History has taught us that deforestation and economic development have gone hand-in-hand, the graph below demonstrates this common path to development.


Angelsen, A. (2007) “Forest Cover Change in Space and Time: Combining the Von Thunen and Forest Transition Theories” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 4117
Ryan, C. M. (2009) “Deforestation. POSTnote” London, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

As populations increase, the demand for agricultural land increases, which tends to result in large-scale clearances of forests. However, there also comes a point at which forest cover stabilises and may even recover! This occurs at approximately the point where GDP exceeds $5,000/capita. Therefore one of the biggest goals for forest conservation is to provide a new ‘route to development’ which by-passes the seemingly inherent deforestation stages. In the discussions of climate change mitigation this is becoming increasingly important because of forests carbon absorbing properties, and our continuing reliance on carbon intensive fossil fuels.

The COP19 in Warsaw, saw major steps forward in forest conservation, with an agreement to define the drivers of deforestation, for the establishment of national forest monitoring; known as MRV (monitoring, reporting, and verification). Countries are collectively encouraged to slow, halt and reverse the loss in forest cover and carbon loss. There is an allowance for national circumstances, and protections in place for safeguarding the environment and human rights of indigenous people, who will be key for the success of these projects. And with over US$280 million pledged, by the United Kingdom, Norway, and the US, for financing the Warsaw Framework for REDD+, global momentum is growing for enabling the protection of our important forest ecosystems.

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