Undoing Nature, Billions of Trees at a Time
Deforestation is the process of clearing, thinning or destroying forests. The process can occur naturally as a result of fire; however, the primary cause of deforestation is human activity, typically for the purposes of commercial agriculture, development and logging.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 46 to 58 thousand square miles of forests are cleared across the globe every year — the equivalent of about 36 football fields per minute. Deforestation is happening at the fastest rate in tropical regions like the Amazon rainforest, but the process occurs all over the world, making it one of the greatest issues impacting global land use today.
Impact of Deforestation
Forests benefit our world in numerous ways. Through photosynthesis, trees store carbon dioxide, remove pollutants from air and add oxygen back into the atmosphere. Forests support biodiversity by providing shelter and nesting places for animals and other organisms. By absorbing rainwater and pollutants, trees help to keep our drinking water clean and reduce soil erosion.
Deforestation is currently most problematic in the Amazon, Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and in North American old-growth forests. Widespread clearing of trees devastates the plant life and animals living within forested regions, where many species have become critically endangered or extinct as a result of deforestation. Some of the most high profile species affected include pandas, orangutans, tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas.
When deforestation occurs, species that rely on forested habitats are pushed out into other areas in which they are unable to adapt, which contributes to their extinction or leads to changes in other ecosystems as species are forced to migrate. Similarly, deforestation hurts the livelihood of human cultures as communities of people that live within, and depend on, forests are forced out of their homes and away from their traditional ways of life.
The removal of trees can lead to soil erosion, which in turn can reduce the quality of water in nearby lakes, rivers and other water sources. Removing trees also increases the risk of flooding and can lead to landslides on mountainsides. As trees return water vapor to the atmosphere, their removal can also create dry, desert-like conditions and increase the flammability of trees that remain in these areas.
The actual process of removing trees contributes to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to an article in The Guardian, about "10-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to deforestation each year" because trees are usually not replaced with anything that can absorb as much CO2. This problem is compounded when forests are cleared by intentional burning — a process known as "slash and burn."
Why We Do It
Deforestation is largely a byproduct of human population growth. The United States, for example, experienced intense deforestation between 1600 and 1900. Today, commercial agriculture is the single biggest culprit. In fact, most of the world's crops are grown on land that was once covered by forests.
Additional drivers of deforestation include the development of housing and infrastructure, commercial logging, and the production of paper and other wood products.
What We Can Do About It
The rate of deforestation in the United States has slowed in recent years, but it remains both a national and global environmental threat. This has led to the formation of numerous nonprofit organizations and global initiatives focused on preventing deforestation. The United Nations' REDD+ initiative, for example, incentivizes developing nations to maintain and protect their forests.
On an individual level, reducing your use of wood-based products, like various paper products, is the single best way to fight deforestation. Avoid items such as paper plates and napkins, and only use printer paper when absolutely necessary.
When buying wood-based products, make sure they're certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC-certified products are sourced from forests that are maintained in a sustainable way, which means, among other things, that trees are actively replenished in these areas. When you must use paper and wood products, be sure to recycle them when they are no longer needed.
Be cautious when buying food products that may come from deforested plantations, especially soy, hearts of palm/palm oil, coffee, rice and sugar cane. Remember that commercial agriculture, including cattle farms, are a major driver of deforestation, so even avoiding meat a few times a week can help make an impact.