An estimated 7.6 million hectares of forests are lost each year. In tropical rainforests particularly, deforestation continues to be an urgent environmental issue that jeopardizes people’s livelihoods, threatens species, and intensifies global warming. Forests make a vital contribution to humanity, but their full potential will only be realized if we halt deforestation and forest degradation.
Forests in our lives
Forests impact our daily lives in more ways than we can imagine. From the air we breathe to the wood we love, human beings are heavily dependent on forests and the products and services they provide.
Forests provide habitats to diverse animal species; they form the source of livelihood for many different human settlements; they offer watershed protection, timber and non-timber products, and various recreational options; they prevent soil erosion, help in maintaining the water cycle, and check global warming by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis.
Yet we are losing forests.
Between 1990 and 2015, the world lost some 129 million ha of forest, an area the size of South Africa. When we take away the forest, it is not just the trees that go. The entire ecosystem begins to fall apart, with dire consequences for all of us.
Deforestation and forest degradation
Deforestation is the conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of the tree canopy cover. This includes conversion of natural forest to tree plantations, agriculture, pasture, water reservoirs and urban areas but excludes timber production areas managed to ensure the forest regenerates after logging.
Forest degradation happens when changes within the forest negatively affect the structure or function of the stand or site, and thereby lower the capacity to supply products and/or ecosystem services. Forest degradation creates less resilient and less productive forests and in some countries, it can be nearly as harmful as deforestation, carving "death by a thousand cuts" that eventually leads to deforestation. Forest degradation often begins the slippery slope to deforestation: large canopy gaps can dry out rainforests leaving them vulnerable to fire; abandoned logging roads provide access to settlers; and authorities are often more willing to grant conversion permits in heavily logged forests.
Effects of deforestation and forest degradation
Deforestation and forest degradation can cause wildlife to decline. When forest cover is removed, wildlife is deprived of habitat and becomes more vulnerable to hunting. Considering that about 80% of the world's documented species can be found in tropical rainforests, deforestation poses a serious threat to the Earth’s biodiversity.
Release of greenhouse gas emissions: Forests are the largest terrestrial store of carbon, but deforestation is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions after fossil fuel burning, causing 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result of deforestation, trees no longer evaporate groundwater, which can cause the local climate to be much drier.
Deforestation accelerates rates of soil erosion, by increasing runoff and reducing the protection of the soil from tree litter.
Millions of people rely directly on forests, through shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering, and by harvesting forest products such as rubber. Deforestation continues to create severe social problems, sometimes leading to violent conflict.
Current deforestation trends point toward catastrophic and irreversible losses of biodiversity and runaway climate change. With better governance and smarter land use, it would be possible to meet global demand for food and forest products without any further loss of forests between now and 2030, but urgent action is needed.
Actions to tackle deforestation will require new policies and laws, better implementation of existing laws, tough crackdowns on corruption, and economic opportunities for local communities, whether they be the 300 million people living in forests and the more than 1 billion directly dependent on forests.
The recent groundswell of commitments to deforestation-free production, commodity-sourcing and financing is a promising step towards achieving this target and sustainable supply chains for food, fibre and energy.
However, safeguards and emerging best practices should be incorporated in commitments and actions on deforestation-free production, sourcing and finance. These should help position deforestation-free as a critical aspect of sustainability, but not a proxy for, or superior trait to, full sustainability.