Help us save the air we breathe

Posted on April, 05 2011

What could be more important than having air to breathe? We’re working to protect the Earth’s lungs – our forests
What could be more important than having air to breathe? We’re working to protect the Earth’s lungs – our forests.

You couldn’t live without it, but you take it entirely for granted. You can’t see it, but it’s all around you.

We’re talking, of course, about air.

The air we breathe is a mixture of gases – about four-fifths is nitrogen, and another fifth is oxygen, which we need to live.

But there’s a handful of other gases too. They only occur in minuscule amounts, but they have a big effect. They’re called greenhouse gases. Chief among them is carbon dioxide.

By absorbing the sun’s rays, they keep the temperature in our atmosphere stable. Without them, the Earth would sizzle every day and freeze every night.

But you can have too much of a good thing. With more carbon dioxide in the air, the Earth’s temperature would rise dangerously.

The world’s forests keep our atmosphere and climate in balance by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Destroy them, and we destroy our life-support system.

What’s at stake?

Alive, forests breathe in and store massive amounts of carbon. Cut them down and that carbon will make its way back into the atmosphere – and there won’t be so many trees to left to absorb it. Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for around 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year, fuelling global warming.

Not so long ago tropical rainforests covered 12% of the Earth’s land surface. That’s down to 6% in the last few decades. And we haven’t hit bottom yet. Each year, 130,000 sq km of forests are destroyed globally because of activities like building new roads, logging, mining, dam building and clearance for agriculture.
Climate change isn’t the only consequence of this. Animals, plants and humans are suffering hugely from their destruction too.

Nine out of ten land-based species of animals and plants live in forests – the vast majority of them in the tropical forests of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Close to 1.6 billion people depend on them for survival, including 60 million indigenous people.

The story so far

Back in 1975, our Tropical Rainforest Campaign – the world’s first – raised awareness around the world of the huge importance of tropical forests and the threats they face. Since then, we’ve helped protect forests across the globe.

The world’s largest tropical forest, the Amazon, is still 80% standing. We’ve played a big part in that by helping to create and manage protected areas, and promoting sustainable development. In the last decade, we’ve helped to double the area of rainforest under protection in the Brazilian Amazon, creating more than 250,000 sq km of national parks and nature reserves – an area the size of New Zealand.

Over in Africa, there’s been huge progress over the last decade in the world’s second largest area of tropical forest – the Congo Basin. At the turn of the millennium, the ‘green heart of Africa’ was on the verge of a coronary. Illegal logging and weak management meant 91,000 sq km of forest was lost in central Africa in the decade up to 2000.

That’s why we brought together leaders of six countries in the basin in 1999 to sign the Yaoundé Declaration, pledging to manage the forest sustainably. More than 10% of the forest is now part of two massive conservation areas. Sustainable forestry is starting to replace destructive logging – so far, 45,000 sq km has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), guaranteeing a better deal for local people and the environment.

Some of Asia’s most magnificent forests lie on two of the planet’s largest islands: Borneo and Sumatra. They’re home to many rare and endangered species of animals and plants, including tigers, elephants, rhinos and orang-utans. We’ve worked with the islands’ governments to agree deals to protect their forests and the biodiversity within.

Another WWF priority is the island of New Guinea, home to the world’s third largest rainforest. We’ve been working there for more than 20 years, promoting better land-use planning, responsible forestry and protected areas for the island’s amazing biodiversity – despite covering less than 1% of the planet’s land area, it’s home to more than 5% of species.

Did you know?

Scientists have found a new species of plant or animal in the Amazon every three days on average over the last decade (and that’s not including insects – there are too many of those to count!).

Facts and stats

  • 50% – proportion of the world’s tropical forests destroyed over the last century
  • Four-fifths – area of the Amazon still standing
  • 15% – proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions resulting from deforestation and forest degradation
  • 9 out of 10 – land-based species found in forests
  • 60 million – indigenous people living in tropical forests

What next?

At the moment, net forest loss (the amount cut down compared to what’s re-grown) stands at 52,000 sq km a year. Our goal is to reduce the net loss to zero by 2020. But we’ll be honest in our accounting, and won’t pretend that a monoculture plantation offsets the loss of a pristine forest. 

We’re doing that by focusing on the underlying causes of deforestation – and finding solutions. In particular, we’re looking at three large tracts of tropical rainforests – in the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Borneo.
  • Our appetite for beef is one of the biggest threats to the Amazon, as land is cleared to make way for grazing and to grow soy for cattle feed. We’re working with the beef and soy industries, and the big global retailers they supply, to adopt more sustainable practices.
  • Illegal and unsustainable logging remains a big problem. WWF fought for and helped win important legislation in the United States and Europe banning the import and sale of illegally harvested and endangered wood.
    We’re also promoting responsible forestry through the FSC, which maintains forest quality and guarantees social benefits for local people.

What you can do

  • Buy wood and paper products with the FSC label – it guarantees the wood or fibre is recycled or originates from forests that are well managed.
  • Palm oil is found in everything from shampoo to ice cream. Ask your supermarket or your favourite brands if they’re using RSPO-certified palm oil, which doesn’t contribute to deforestation.
  • Help us save a billion trees in the Brazilian Amazon with Sky Rainforest Rescue

Join the myWWF Action Center
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Misty sunset on the Amazonian forests, French Guiana.
© Roger Leguen / WWF
Women carrying wood from community forests that are managed by Community Forest Co-ordination Committees, Bardia District, Nepal.
© Simon de TREY-WHITE / WWF-UK
Alphonse of WWF Cameroon pointing at FSC certified logs on a logging truck, East province, Cameroon.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK