Catastrophic climate disruption on the horizon.
The science is clear – deforestation is causing an environmental imbalance that is proving to be unsustainable and quite dangerous to all life on earth.
Understanding deforestation, its consequences to our communities, and how politicians, businesses, and consumers contribute to our climate crisis is important.
Significant examples of deforestation occur in the tropical regions, namely the Amazon, Indonesia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Amazon has garnered the most attention in recent months after Brazilian President and pro-corporate climate-denier Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 and began encouraging deforestation, which culminated in devastating wildfires across the Amazon in August 2019. If the deforestation of the Amazon reaches a point of no return, the results will be devastating for efforts to prevent catastrophic climate disruption.
- Deforestation exacerbates climate change, mainly in the form of warmer global average temperatures, extremes in the water cycle (from droughts to floods), and soil erosion. Learn More
- The Amazon has garnered the most attention in recent months after Brazilian president and pro-corporate climate-denier, Bolsonaro, encouraged deforestation. However, deforestation is a world-wide crisis which includes major rainforests in Indonesia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Learn More
- Deforestation has some notable pros; however, the cons greatly outweigh the benefits when deforestation methods are used irresponsibly and without consideration to their environmental impact. Learn More
- The leading cause of deforestation globally (accounting for 80% of deforested land) is “agribusiness” or “industrial agriculture” to produce commodities such as soy, cattle, palm oil, and wood. The next largest causes of deforestation include local production of agriculture, mining, infrastructure, and urban expansion. Weak laws and enforcement are also critical causes of deforestation, but this means that there are solutions. Learn More
Deforestation exacerbates climate change, mainly in the form of warmer global average temperatures, extremes in the water cycle (from droughts to floods), and soil erosion.
Forests are important to life on earth, as trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, and then release oxygen. As a result of deforestation, CO2 is not only being released back into the atmosphere, less of it is also being removed.
- Cutting down trees, burning them, or allowing them to rot releases the CO2 that the trees had stored over their life cycle.
- Deforestation could lead to a disastrous feedback loop. As the forest absorbs less CO2, the excess CO2 causes more forest land to dry out.
- Once released into the atmosphere, CO2 has the potential to influence the global climate for thousands of years. It takes the oceans 20 to 200 years to absorb equal amounts of CO2 (65-80%). The remaining 20 to 35 percent takes up to hundreds of thousands of years to absorb. As a result, the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere increase over time leading to a rise in the average global temperature.
- Scientists agree that 350ppm is the maximum amount of CO2 that can sustain human civilization. They argue that overshooting that number will lead to catastrophic climate changes. As of May 2018, the monthly global average was 410 ppm.
- Deforestation accounts for “about 24% of total greenhouse gas emissions.” In fact, deforestation in the tropics “adds more carbon dioxide than the sum total of all the cars and trucks on the world’s roads.”
Deforestation may cause some regions of the planet to experience an increase in rainfall, whereas others will experience a decrease.
- Some locations might witness extreme drought, flooding, or blizzards, as opposed to a more equal distribution which occurs in normal conditions. In fact, deforestation in the tropics can affect rainfall patterns around the world.
- A rise in the average global temperature could mean longer heatwaves, more intense storms, higher sea level rise, and almost certain extinction for endangered species.
- Because tropical rainforests help maintain normal precipitation patterns, the leveling of these rainforests would cause the average global temperature to rise by 0.7oC.
Soil degradation, the loss of nutrients and topsoil, is another result of deforestation.
- Topsoil is necessary for growing plants. Without topsoil there is no agriculture. Both of these factors lead to a loss of agricultural yields, causing farmers to relocate to a new patch of forest and start the cycle anew.
The Amazon has garnered the most attention in recent months after Brazilian president and pro-corporate climate-denier, Bolsonaro, encouraged deforestation. However, deforestation is a world-wide crisis which includes major rainforests in Indonesia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Deforestation in the Amazon is responsible for “record-setting droughts in 2005, 2010, and 2015-16” in Brazil.
- In July 2019, scientists warned that the Amazon was reaching a “point of no return” in which the rainforest would certainly become a grassy, carbon-emitting savannah. Scientists estimate such a transformation becomes inevitable when “deforestation reaches 20 to 25 percent of total tree cover.” The current rate of deforestation is at 17 percent.
- In terms of the Amazon deforestation, a 60-percent degradation of the forest “could unleash the equivalent of five or six years’ worth of fossil fuel emissions.”
In 2019, Brazil elected far-right climate denier Jair Bolsonaro who has encouraged the exacerbation of deforestation in the Amazon.
- Deforestation in the Amazon was in decline for 14 years (2002-2016) under the administrations of Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva (2002-11) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16).
- Three months before the devastating 2019 wildfires broke out in the Amazon, deforestation had reached record high levels ever seen in the month of May “since the current monitoring method began.”
Rainforests in Indonesia and Sub-Saharan Africa also greatly contribute to the climate crisis due to deforestation.
- Indonesia is home to the world’s oldest tropical rainforests and among the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
- By June 2014, the rate of deforestation in Indonesia overtook the rate occurring in Brazil under then-president Dilma Rousseff.
- Between 2000 and 2012 Indonesia had lost over 15 million acres.
- Deforestation in Indonesia occurs primarily to harvest trees for paper and plywood and to clear land for palm oil plantations.
- After the U.S. and China, Indonesia was the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2014. Approximately 85 percent of these emissions were from the burning of rainforests. Deforestation in Indonesia can lead to drought in Costa Rica, China, and Turkey, while increasing rainfall in France, India, and Mongolia.
- The floor of Indonesian rainforests consist of peatlands. Scientists estimate that the peatlands have stored 35 billion tons of CO2. Draining and burning the peatlands “releases thousands of tons of carbon dioxide and sets the stage for devastating forest fires.”
- In the 1990s, deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa “exceeded the global annual average” of 38.05 million acres per year.
- Small farmers and gatherers of wood for fuel are the most common groups contributing to deforestation. As of 2011, 81 percent of households in this region depend on wood as their primary energy source. This is higher than anywhere else in the world.
Deforestation has some notable pros; however, the cons greatly outweigh the benefits when deforestation methods are used irresponsibly and without consideration to their environmental impact.
Regardless of how destructive deforestation is, it has proven to be advantageous for two main reasons.
- For countries with poor economies, it gives people an economic advantage, allowing poor farmers an efficient, albeit short lived, method to feed themselves and have a commodity in order to earn money.
- Controlled burning is used as a means of mitigating the risks associated with wildfires during dry conditions, as well as helping specific species of tree seeds to germinate. As long as they remain under control, these burns serve beneficial purposes.
There are four main types of deforestation: clear cutting, selective logging, slash and burn, and controlled burning. The cons of deforestation greatly outweigh the pros.
- Clearcutting is the method of cutting down “large swaths of land […] all at once.”
- Unlike cutting down one tree at a time, clear cutting is unsustainable. The shock of the loss of dozens to hundreds of trees at once emit up to millions of tons of CO2 and exacerbate soil erosion.
- Clear cutting is “an ecological trauma that has no precedent in nature except for a major volcanic eruption.”
- The impacts of clearcutting last thousands of years.
- Selective logging involves harvesting older trees that have stored large amounts of carbon, replanting seedlings at harvest sites and allowing younger trees to grow.
- This method is commonly believed to emit less CO2. However, it “can significantly reduce the biomass of a tropical forest for many decades, seriously diminishing aboveground carbon storage capacity, and create opportunities for weeds and vines to spread and slow down the ecological succession.”
- Slash-and-Burn is a method where poor farmers will migrate to agricultural settlement areas and cut down several acres of land to use for farming. They then burn the stumps to release the nutrients needed to grow crops.
- Once the land has been clear cut, they will plant crops and farm for a few years. When the land becomes unproductive, it is abandoned and the process repeats.
- This has been practiced for about 12,000 years and started when humans stopped hunting and gathering and started to grow their own crops.
- Slash-and-burn releases 2 billion tons of carbon every year.
- It also causes a loss in biodiversity, especially if an area is the only one that holds a particular species, slashing and burning could result in extinction for that species. Because this technique is largely used in tropical areas where biodiversity is high, tropical deforestation, mostly caused by slash-and-burn agriculture, is the major cause of the great wave of extinction presently afflicting Earth’s biodiversity.
- Controlled burning is practiced by the proper authorities, such as firefighters and forestry managers, who oversee controlled burns to prevent them from becoming wildfires. In these instances, the authorities burn fallen leaves and branches that, when dry, increase the risk of wildfire.
- Controlled burns can sometimes become uncontrollable, but wildfires are more likely to result from human negligence, such as leaving campfires unattended, flicking cigarette butts into forestland, or allowing slash-and-burn operations to become out of control. Like many of the wildfires that plague the Pacific Northwest, most wildfires in the Amazon are started by humans, but then spiral out of control.
- Brazil recorded nearly 73,000 wildfires in 2019, an 80% increase from 2018. This increase is believed to be attributed to deforestation.
- Another con to deforestation is erosion. Burning vegetation residues after slashing exposes the soil surface to direct contact with rain. As a result, exposed soil erodes easily. Exposing topsoil to wind causes an additional form of erosion. Generally, erosion removes the fertile topsoil making the land more barren and therefore difficult to farm.
- Trees help the soil hold nutrients; otherwise, the nutrients gets washed away by the rain. This can happen in as little as three years, leaving barren soil behind. It can take up to 50 years for the forest to recover. This loss of soil fertility may cause more deforestation leading to more nutrient loss leading to fields unable to support growth of any kind.
The leading cause of deforestation globally (accounting for 80% of deforested land) is “agribusiness” or “industrial agriculture” to produce commodities such as soy, cattle, palm oil, and wood. The next largest causes of deforestation include local production of agriculture, mining, infrastructure, and urban expansion. Weak laws and enforcement are also critical causes of deforestation, but this means that there are solutions.
Soy production and cattle ranching are the top contributors to deforestation.
- Soy production and cattle ranching are highly interrelated since 67% of soy becomes feed for the production of dairy, eggs, pork, poultry, and beef.
- Cattle ranching and soy production produced a deforestation rate of 4.8 million acres annually between 1996 and 2005.
- Two American conglomerates, Cargill and Bunge, export a large quantity of soy into the EU, which overall imported some 17.9 million tons in 2016.
- Industrial farms in the USA, Brazil, and Argentina account for 80% of the 270 million tons produced annually.
Palm oil cultivation is the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia because oil palms grow well in conditions in which rainforests thrive.
- “More than 90 percent of the palm oil produced is used to manufacture food products, cosmetics, detergents and candles.”
- “About 90 percent (2011) of the world’s palm oil is currently being produced in Malaysia and Indonesia.”
- Organically cultivated palm oil poses no less a threat to displaced rainforests than non-organic palm oil.
- Some of the largest producers, traders, and consumers include Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Henke.
Wood products, including the pulp and paper industry, have a significant impact on deforestation as a result of destroying forests in order to plant faster growing wood.
- Brazil and Indonesia produce the most paper among tropical countries, but Indonesia’s impact is greater regarding “fast growing” wood methods.
- Between 2000 and 2010, clearing forests for this “fast wood” accounted for more deforestation than palm oil or coal mining.
- Sometimes natural forests aren’t immediately destroyed, but are degraded by “selective logging,” which makes forests more vulnerable to fires and unsuitable as habitat for some species.
- The selective logging of one tree can damage 10 to 20 surrounding trees.
Local agriculture, mining, infrastructure, and urban expansion contribute to the remaining 20 percent of deforestation.
- Six percent of global tree cover loss is due to urbanization. Two-thirds of such tree loss occurs in the eastern USA.
Weak governance, inadequate policies, and a lack of enforcement are critical causes of deforestation, which means that there are solutions.
- “Logging in violation of national laws accounts for 8-10% of global production and trade in forest products. It also represents 40-50% of all logging in some of the most threatened forests.”
- Officials in Liberia circumvented environmental laws, issuing logging and oil palm cultivation licenses covering 70% of its forests between 2007 and 2013.
- In response to U.S. tariffs, China imposed its own, causing U.S. exports of soy to plummet by half. As a result, China will expand its imports from Brazil, which has a greater impact than those farmed in the U.S. This could increase production in Brazil by up to 39%, potentially destroying over 32 million acres of rainforest.
- “Of the 473 companies committed to removing deforestation from their supply chains of major agricultural commodities, 155 have made specific commitments to achieve that goal by 2020 and 49 (10%) companies have reported 75% or greater progress toward achieving their goals.”
- “In Brazil, the rate of deforestation [fell] by half between 2004 and 2009 because of enforcement of environmental laws, pressure from purchasers of soybeans, and other factors.”
Editor: Alison Hartson
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