Deforestation can have a range of effects on humans and wildlife.
In this guide, we discuss what deforestation is, what causes it, where it occurs the most, rates of deforestation, the effects and problems, potential solutions, and how many trees we might really need on Earth.
We also look into reforestation and afforestation.
Summary – Deforestation
What Is Deforestation?
Deforestation might be described as the permanent removal of trees classified to be part of a ‘forest’, and/or the clearing of that forest land and turning it into land for non forest use (farming, ranches, logging etc.)
Main Causes Of Deforestation
Deforestation happens for a number of reasons
The main direct human cause of deforestation is the clearing of land for the purposes of both agriculture, and farming (subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation and commercial agriculture is responsible for 32%). This makes up around 80% of total deforestation
Logging, and using wood for fuel fall in behind them.
In some parts of the world, temperate rainforests are heavily logged for their timber
There are a number of other direct and indirect reasons deforestation may occur
A significant driver behind human causes of deforestation come down to the economic value of the new converted land use compared to the value of the forest, and also, the ability to produce resources (in the case of farming and agriculture)
There can also be natural causes of deforestation, such as forest fires, hurricanes, and other natural events
Effects Of Deforestation
Some of the side effects of deforestation may include but aren’t limited to:
Biodiversity loss of animals and plant life (and microorganisms and other life found in forests) – along with soils and the world’s oceans, forest and rainforests have some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on Earth
Loss of biosequestration of carbon from the atmosphere and loss of oxygen production (assuming there is no re-afforestation)
And, richer countries benefiting whilst people (mainly local populations that depend on the rainforest for their livelihood) from poorer countries and local communities may lose part of their livelihood
Tree Cover On Earth Now vs The Past
Interestingly, some sources indicate we have more total tree cover on Earth now than 35 years ago, but tropical rainforests specifically are being depleted.
This might be seen as a significant issue because of how rich the biodiversity is in rainforests
Total Tree Area vs Tree Density
There is a difference between total tree area, and tree density
These two measurements should be distinct from each other
Total tree area considers the total area of tree cover, whereas tree density considers how many trees there are within a square area space
Some tree cover areas have low density, whilst some have much higher density
The Importance Of Tropical Tree Cover (Rainforests)
Tropical tree cover loss has been increasing continuously since 2001 according to some reports
So, tropical rainforest deforestation is a significant issue, and should be a distinction separate to temperate rainforest deforestation
Reversible vs Irreversible Effects Of Deforestation
The thing about tropical rainforest deforestation to note is that, some side effects such as species extinction are almost or completely irreversible, and, it takes a very long time to restore rainforests – that’s even if they can be restored at all.
Countries With The Most Forest Area
Some of the countries with the most forest area right now might include Russia, Canada, Brazil, United States, China, and Australia
Countries With The Highest Deforestation Rates
Some of the countries with the highest deforestation rates right now might include Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, The US, Bolivia, Sudan, and Nigeria
Global Reforestation Rates
Globally, reforestation rates still appear to be lagging (as of right now) behind deforestation rates
Potential Challenges With Tree Replanting & Using Trees As Part Of Land Restoration
Something to note is that there can be challenges and issues with mass tree planting and afforestation projects (as evidenced in China as one example) – so, these challenges and potential problems need to be considered with any future tree planting projects and strategies
Similarly, it there can be challenges to using trees as part of land restoration and re-greening strategies
Potential Solutions To Deforestation
Solutions to deforestation (and saving rainforests) might include but aren’t limited to:
Providing an economic incentive to preserve remaining forests as they are
Establishing new forest areas (along with tree planting, reforestation and re-greening of land)
Considering the impact of indirect factors like population growth and increased consumer needs on the need for new farming land and increased agricultural production
Finding other alternatives to timber (like bamboo as one example) is another option worth considering
What Is Deforestation?
– The permanent removal of an area of trees classified as a ‘forest’
– And, this removal or trees is to convert the land use to something else other than for a forest (such as for farms, ranches, or urban use)
What Is Cleared Forest Land Used For?
There can be a number of land conversion types and new land uses such as:
– Agriculture and farming
This is the main cause and land conversion use of deforestation according to various sources (subsistence farming, and commercial agriculture, together, are responsible for up to 80% of deforestation by humans)
The land can be converted into pasture for livestock, or cropland (for farms, ranches, etc)
It can also be converted to palm and pulp plantations, and other types of plantations
The forest area is cleared for a logging operation where the trees are cut down to be used for products or materials such as timber, wood for construction, paper, and even for wood fuel (sometimes in the form of charcoal or timber)
– A mining site
To mine or quarry minerals, soils, stones, etc
Such as dams and roads
– Other urban development
Main Causes Of Deforestation (Human Causes)
Based on stats, farming and agriculture land use conversions seem to be the most common reason for deforestation (together – about 80% of total deforestation), with logging and using wood for fuel a reasonable % difference behind them.
According to Wikipedia.org:
– Subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation
– Commercial agriculture is responsible for 32%
– Logging is responsible for 14%
– Fuel wood removals make up 5%.
Other Humans Causes Of Deforestation
Other direct, and indirect causes of deforestation may include:
– The calculated or real economic value of the new/converted land use being more than the current forest land area, or the value of any forest management/conservation land use
– A lack of protection laws and regulations in place to protect forests and forest land area
– Corruption of government institutions
– Countries, companies and organizations using their wealth and power to control forest land and resources (over groups with less wealth and power)
– Population growth, overpopulation, and increasing demand and consumption rates whereby more resources are needed
– Urbanization and spread of urban development (in part to cater to growing populations)
– Globalization (although, there are ways that globalization has also help protect and conserve forests, so, it can be both a positive and a negative)
– Deforestation has also been used in the past as a war strategy
Natural Causes Of Deforestation
Sometimes causes of deforestation are caused my nature and not humans.
These natural causes can include:
– Hurricanes, bushfires, floods, and other natural events
Effects Of Deforestation, & Subsequent Problems
But, there can be a number of individual effects and flow on problems from deforestation.
Some of the effects and problems caused by deforestation (with and without reforestation) might include:
– Habitat damage
Wildlife live in the trees and forest ecosystems that are removed.
– Biodiversity loss and wildlife loss
Biodiversity is lost due to deforestation in a number of ways.
Wildlife live in the trees and forest ecosystem, which is removed. In this instance, there is either a displacement of wild animal species, or extinction is also a possibility.
Plants and vegetation also live in the forest ecosystem that is removed.
There’s also microorganisms to consider.
From rainforests.mongabay.com: ‘Tropical rainforests support the greatest diversity of living organisms on Earth … rainforests house more than 50 percent of all plants and animals found on land’
From worldwildlife.org: ‘Forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. These ecosystems are complex webs of organisms that include plants, animals, fungi and bacteria … [and] The most biologically diverse and complex forests on earth are tropical rainforests’
– Land and soil degradation
One side effect of deforestation can be that it can remove the top hummus and leaf litter layer that protects the fertile soil below it.
– Decreased oxygen production
Assuming there is no reafforestation elsewhere, there will be lower amounts of oxygen being released into the atmosphere (trees and forest help produce oxygen)
– Decreased carbon dioxide absorption
Assuming there is no reafforestation elsewhere, there will be lower amounts of biosequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
– Increase in GHG emissions
Various sources indicate that deforestation is one of the causes of increased GHG emissions …
In the last two decades, various studies estimate that land use change, including deforestation and forest degradation, accounts for 12-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions (wikipedia.org).
In addition, when trees are removed, the soil they sit upon is disturbed and releases CO2. Soils are capable of holding three times as much carbon as the atmosphere (theconversation.com)
– Impact on local communities
Local communities in low income or isolated areas can be impacted by the clearing of forests that they depend on for their livelihood
– Other effects
Tropical rainforests are the source of one-fourth of the medicines humans use – so, when they are cleared, we may lose access to some of these medicines
The Wikipedia resource in the resources list has more discussion on effects of deforestation.
How Much Of Earth’s Land Is Forest?
About 30 percent of Earth’s land surface is covered by forests (Wikipedia.org)
It’s worth noting though that there are different types of forests, and each forest area has different characteristics and features, as well as conditions.
How Much Of The Earth’s Land Surface Is Tropical Rainforest?
… they cover less than 2 percent of Earth’s surface (rainforests.mongabay.com)
So, we can see tropical rainforests make up a small % of total forest land area on Earth.
Countries With The Most Total Forest Area
You can read more about countries with the most forests at:
List of countries by forest area (wikipedia.org)
The world’s most forested countries (worldatlas.com)
A summarized top 6 list includes:
Countries With the Highest Deforestation Rates (Total Woodland Area Lost)
You can read more about deforestation rates at:
Worst countries for deforestation by woodland area loss (worldatlas.com)
Deforestation by region (wikipedia.org)
General Deforestation Guide (wikipedia.org)
A top 10 list includes:
Papua New Guinea
As of 2005, net deforestation rates have ceased to increase in countries with a per capita GDP of at least US$4,600 (wikipedia.org)
Is Deforestation Increasing Or Decreasing? (Based On Annual Stats & Numbers)
The numbers may suggest we have more trees and mor total tree cover, but tropical tree cover and savanna tree cover might be decreasing.
This could be an issue, as these tend to be some of the more biodiverse forest ecosystems.
Explained in a more detailed way:
– We have more total tree cover (tropical areas + subtropical, temperate, boreal, and polar regions) on Earth than 35 years ago
– … Earth may presently have more trees than 35 years ago … but, some of its most productive and biodiverse biomes—especially tropical forests and savannas—are significantly more damaged and degraded, reducing their resilience and capacity to afford ecosystem services
– … tropical tree cover loss has been increasing continuously since 2001 (this is important to note because tropical rainforests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth)
Although there some uncertainties around the rates of deforestation and the stats provided, it might be accurate to say that the evidence suggests that destruction of rainforests remains a significant environmental problem.
Some effects are irreversible, such as wildlife species loss.
It takes time to bring life back to forests once trees are replanted.
There is a difference between total tree area, and tree density in forests – so these indicators should be measured separately with reforestation.
As a result of deforestation, only 6.2 million square kilometres (2.4 million square miles) remain of the original 16 million square kilometres (6 million square miles) of forest that formerly covered the Earth (wikipedia.org)
You can read more about deforestation stats year by year in the globalforestwatch.org, and psmag.com resources mentioned in the resources list.
Potential Solutions To Deforestation
We’ve put together a separate guide that lists potential sustainable forest management practices.
However, to reduce deforestation, the following is a list of options that might be considered:
– Consider how the economic incentive to conserve rainforests can be increased
… use direct monetary incentives (or other types of incentives) to encourage developing countries to limit and/or roll back deforestation. This is done through several different types of programs …
– Consider farming and agricultural techniques based on forest conservation
New more sustainable methods of farming and agriculture such as food forests in permaculture
Read more about sustainable farming practices, and also the potential pros and cons of sustainable farming in these guides.
– Consider the impact and use of land rights
Some organisations suggest transferring land rights from the public domain to indigenous communities
– Consider better monitoring, tracking and reporting on deforestation
Monitoring deforestation via visual interpretation of aerial photos or satellite imagery, and hot spot analysis.
Deforestation rate and total area deforested are two key stats used for example
– Forest management policies
Designing forest management policies to consider the short term and long term effects of deforestation
– Consider the impact of certifications
Having global certification systems … which contributes to tackling deforestation by creating market demand for timber from sustainably managed forests
– Consider reafforestation and tree planting to replenish forest ecosystems
Reforestation and afforestation large scale projects
Having world tree planting days like China has to replenish tree numbers [and maintaining these trees]
Increasing the number of planted forests (search engines like Ecosia are helping with these efforts)
– New forests
Establishing new forests in areas that are protected and we know won’t be cleared or disturbed/destroyed
– Consider product, service and material alternatives (other than those that come from deforestation)
Using bamboo and other alternatives instead of wood
– Have a specific focus on tropical rainforests and savannas
The most concentrated deforestation occurs in tropical rainforests.
So, it makes sense to focus on tropical rainforests in particular if we want to decrease deforestation
– Consider how globalization can be a tool to help with forest conservation and recovery
… there are cases in which the impacts of globalization (new flows of labor, capital, commodities, and ideas) have promoted localized forest recovery (wikipedia.org)
– Consider existing case studies on how certain countries have reduced or brought deforestation to zero
Reforestation & Afforestation Rates & Information
It can be hard to find accurate reforestation rates.
Recently (over the last few years), there’s been some significant tree planting projects in various countries undertaken that have been individually reported.
Some stats on reforestation are:
By one measure the global reforestation rate between 1990 and 2005 was 2.5 million hectares a year, compared to 7 million to 8 million hectares a year destroyed by deforestation in that period.
In the 1990s, in another estimate, 14 millions hectares were lost a year to deforestation but 5.2 million hectares was gained through replanting for a net loss of 9.4 million hectares.
You can read more about reforestation and afforestation rates and numbers in these resources:
Top reforestation countries (statista.com)
India plants 50 million trees (nationalgeographic.com)
The largest ever tropical reforestation (fastcompany.com)
Reforestation guide (wikipedia.org)
Afforestation guide (wikipedia.org)
Potential Issues With Tree Planting & Afforestation
Tree planting and afforestation sounds good in theory, but in practice, there are some challenges that need to be considered.
The same thing can be said for using trees as part of large land restoration & re-greening projects.
Potential problems and challenges to consider with tree planting are:
Whether monocultures are being planted, or mixed forests (be aware of ecological dead zones)
Whether native or non native species are being planted (non native species can become invasive)
Whether you are partnering with locals who are committed to the long term existence of trees and greenery (someone needs to ensure the trees survive)
Whether there is enough water in the areas to sustainably support tree growth and tree life – trees must compete with the water needs of humans and other plant and animal life. [An example of this issue popping up is in China where Black locust plantations use up a significant portion of the available rainfall]
[So, water scarcity can become an issue]
How Many Trees Might We Need On Earth