Deforestation has led to the loss of 46% of the world's tree count. People cut down 15 billion trees every year. Forests cover 31% of the world’s land area.
In the United States, 30% of previously-forested areas are already gone. Most of it occurred during a logging boom that started in 1880. By 1920, more than two-thirds of U.S. forests had been leveled at least once.
In the East, 99% of old-growth forests have either been cleared for farming or housing or replaced by second-growth forests. In the Midwest, oak savannas have been reduced to small areas surrounded by cornfields. In the Pacific Northwest, diverse, ancient forests have been replaced with a monoculture of young trees regularly harvested.
People have also introduced blights and pests. They've eliminated many colonial species, such as American chestnuts, eastern white pine, American elm, oaks, and ash.
Deforestation has four causes. The most critical is agriculture. In developing countries, small farmers use slash and burn agriculture. They cut down trees and then burn them.
The second biggest cause is logging operations. Illegal logging is responsible for between 15% and 30% of all wood traded globally. It's estimated to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion annually. Interpol estimates that illegal logging is responsible for:
- Between 50% and 90% of deforestation in the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia.
- From 40% to 61% of timber production in Indonesia.
- One-fourth of Russia's timber exports.
Development is the third cause of deforestation. In the United States, 33% of all houses are near a forest.
The fourth cause is wildfires. Since 1970, wildfires in the western United States have increased by 400%. They have burnt six and a half times the land area as before. In 2019, U.S. wildfires burnt 4.7 million acres of forests. Recent wildfire intensity and frequency in Alaska are worse now than in the past 10,000 years.
Deforestation costs between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion each year through the loss of biodiversity. For example, half of all pharmaceuticals comes from genetic resources.
Deforestation has eliminated habitat for millions of species. In fact, 80% of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests.
Long-term, it worsens climate change. The tree canopy keeps the forest soils moist and more resistant to wildfires, droughts, and subsequent floods. The canopy also blocks the sun’s rays during the day and holds in heat at night. Without it, the environment gets hotter during the day.
Trees perpetuate the water cycle. They return water vapor to the atmosphere and help increase rainfall.
Trees also absorb carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Deforestation adds 15% of the CO2 in the atmosphere, more than the carbon from all cars and trucks. Between 2000 and 2009, 32 million acres of tropical rainforest were cut down. At that rate, deforestation will add 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in the coming decades.
In the last 50 years, 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed. It might not seem like much, but the tipping point is around 20-25%. At that point, the rainforest's water cycle won't be able to support all the ecosystems within it. The eastern, southern, and central Amazon region would become a savannah.
The Amazon generates half of its own rainfall. It recycles moisture from the Atlantic at least five times before it reaches the Pacific. The trees absorb rainfall, then release it through transpiration from their leaves. The moisture ascends into clouds that shed more rain. The water cycle keeps the air humid and rainfall constant.
Deforestation disturbs the stabilizing effects of the Amazon's water cycle. The result is intermittent droughts and floods.
The Amazon region had severe droughts in 2005, 2010, and 2015-2016. It had severe floods in 2009, 2012, and 2014. Scientists believe these were the first signs of destabilization.
At current rates of deforestation, the world’s rain forests will be gone within 100 years.
The United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program has funneled $117 million into deforestation reduction in 44 developing countries. It rewards people for keeping forests along with coffee growing and meat and milk production. Using this program, Brazil has cut deforestation by an estimated 44% since 2005. Its goal was to achieve an 80% reduction by 2020, but early data shows the deforestation rate has actually increased instead, rising each year since 2017.
On April 4, 2018, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the government must create a plan to combat deforestation in the Amazon. It must also address climate change impacts overall. The Supreme Court referred to the Amazon as an “entity subject of rights.” It gives the river the same rights as a human being. An international human rights organization, Dejusticia, sued the Colombian government for its lack of response to climate change and the deforestation of the Amazon.
In some ways, these efforts seem to be making progress. A 2018 study found that new global tree growth over the past 35 years has offset deforestation, thanks to three major causes. First, China and Africa have been planting trees. Second, farmers have abandoned areas in Russia and the United States. Third, global warming has allowed trees to grow into mountainous regions and the tundra.
What You Can Do
There are three easy steps you can take today to slow deforestation.
First, avoid products using palm oil. Most of its production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Huge swaths of tropical forests and carbon-rich swamps are cleared for palm oil plantations. When burned, they release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.
Palm oil is in almost everything, and it's not clearly labeled. Here are four easy ways to avoid it:
- Avoid products with generic vegetable oil as an ingredient. Instead, choose products with clearly labeled oils, such as sunflower oil, corn oil, olive oil, coconut oil, or canola oil.
- Most prepackaged snack foods made by corporate giants such as Nestle and Unilever contain palm oil.
- If a product's saturated fat content is more than 40% of its total fat content, it has palm oil.
- Avoid ingredients with the word "palm" in them.
You can also avoid products such as guitars, furniture, and other products made from tropical hardwoods such as mahogany, cedar, and rosewood.
Second, donate to charities that plant trees. For example, Eden Reforestation hires local residents to plant trees in Madagascar for $0.10 a tree. That gives the very poor people an income, rehabilitates their habitat, and saves species from mass extinction.
Third, become carbon neutral. As of 2021, the average American emits 13 tons of CO2 a year. The site carbonfootprint.com provides a free carbon calculator to estimate your personal carbon emissions. It also provides green projects to offset your emissions.