What is Deforestation?

We explain clearcutting, slash-and-burn and other methods of forest clearance, their impact on tree cover, emissions of CO2 greenhouse gas and global warming, and much more. We look at loss of forest cover and the rate of deforestation since 1990.
Rainforest clearance Sumatra for Oil Palm
Rainforest clearance in Sumatra for Oil Palm Concession. Image: H Dragon, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Deforestation is the cutting down, clearance or thinning of natural forest by human action. Whether the tree removal is caused by clearcutting, logging or slash-and-burn agriculture, the impact on global warming, as well as the environmental effects on forest ecosystems, can be profound. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), deforestation and the degradation of woodland is a major land use issue and a critical contributor to our climate crisis around the world.

What are the root causes of deforestation? Historically, the process is closely aligned with population: the more people, the more forest is cleared. Today, too, the more people that farm close to the forest, the more trees are cleared for cash crops or grazing. Mining and other commercial development is also a major cause, as is livestock farming, and intensive agriculture with its cultivation of soybeans and palm oil. But poverty is surely the underlying cause, because poor countries find it more difficult to secure their forests, while poor farmers need to make a living in order to feed their families.

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Why Is Deforestation Important For Climate Change?

It’s important because trees and forest vegetation act as vital “carbon sinks” storing huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) which they have absorbed from the air via photosynthesis. By acting as carbon reservoirs, forest trees and plants play a key role in the carbon cycle, helping to regulate the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere which in turn helps the temperature of Earth to remain stable. Once a tree is cut down, not only does its carbon sequestration cease, but its decay releases CO2 into the air fuelling the greenhouse effect in the lower atmosphere. An estimated 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for by deforestation and forest degradation. 1 2

7 Effects of Climate Change on Plants and Trees

What Are The Latest Statistics On Co2 Emissions From Deforestation?

The latest statistics on global greenhouse gas emissions from forest clearance are as follows: total CO2 emissions for the year 2019 amounted to 59.1 GtCO2e (a 2.6 percent increase year-on-year). Of this, 6.8 GtCO2 (roughly 11.5 percent) was from deforestation of all types. [Note: like all statistics on GHG emissions, these figures are approximate only. Source: UN Emissions Gap Report 2020.] See also: Greenhouse Gas Statistics Lack Consistency.

According to Jose Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): “Forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change – thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests, could provide up to 30 percent of the climate solution.” 3

How Much Forest Is Being Destroyed?

• Half of the forests that originally covered 48 percent of the Earth’s land surface have been cut down. Only one-fifth of the Earth’s original forests remain pristine and undisturbed. 4

• A study in Nature reveals that an estimated 15 billion trees are cut down each year, and the total number of trees in the world has reduced by approximately 46 percent over the past 5,000 years. 5

• More than 29.6 million acres (12 million hectares) of tropical tree cover were lost in 2018, the fourth-highest annual loss since records began in 2001. 6 The biggest worry is the disappearance of 8.9 million acres (3.6 million hectares) of primary “old growth” rainforest, an area roughly the size of Belgium. (Source: Global Forest Watch. April 2019) These original pristine rainforests store more carbon than other forests and are considered to be irreplaceable when it comes to maintaining biodiversity of plants and animals. Although according to other experts, the average annual loss since 2014 is roughly 65 million acres. 7

• In 2019, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon jumped 30 percent to 10,000 sq km (3,850 sq mi), the largest loss in a decade. 8

• Half the world’s rainforests have been razed in a century – since 1977, an area the size of Europe has gone – and the latest satellite analysis shows that at current rates, rainforests may vanish altogether within 100 years. 9 Not all experts agree with this interpretation. They believe that current levels of deforestation are being overstated while levels of reforestation are understated. This dispute will be resolved as soon as satellite imagery can assess forest canopy more accurately.

Where Is Deforestation Occurring?

Tropical rainforests are suffering the most from recent global deforestation, accounting for between 91 and 94 percent of all forest clearance during the period 2001-2015. Of the 10 countries with the highest average loss, four are in Latin America (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru), two in Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar), three in Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia) and one in Oceania (Papua New Guinea). 10

One of the areas worst affected is the Amazon rainforest in South America. This unique rainforest, two-thirds of which is in Brazil, covers roughly 1.3 billion acres (5,500,000 square km). It accounts for more than half the planet’s remaining area of humid tropical forest. It contains an estimated 390 billion individual trees divided into 16,000 species. 11 Deforestation is Southeast Asia is also a continuing problem.

As of 2018, roughly 17 percent of this tropical forest has already been destroyed by human activities, such as livestock pasture, soybean cultivation and logging. Scientists now warn that if deforestation reaches 20–25 percent, it will trigger a fundamental and irreversible change in the bioregion’s ecology from rainforest to savannah. 12

What Are The True Facts About Deforestation?

The exact statistics of deforestation remain unclear. There are two main sources of facts about forest loss. One is the Global Forest Watch (GFW), compiled from satellite images by the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank. This estimates forest loss in 2017 at 72.6 million acres: a rise of 50 percent over 2015.

The other main source of deforestation data is the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA), which is compiled from government inventories by the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization. FRA estimates the annual net loss, after forest regrowth is taken into account, at just 8.2 million acres. Furthermore, it says deforestation rates have declined by more than 50 percent in the past decade. 13

Why Do These Two Sources Disagree So Widely About The Level Of Deforestation?

In simple terms, it’s really a dispute over the meaning of “deforestation.” GFW measures tree cover. If there’s no tree cover, then as far as GFW are concerned, there’s no ‘forest’. However, while there may be no actual tree cover (easily seen by a satellite), there may be the beginnings of regrowth and forest recovery (almost undetectable by satellite).

By contrast FRA acquires its data from governments. So if they prefer not to publicize the extent of their deforestation problems, FRA’s data is not going to be accurate. Very often, FRA data is a reflection of registered land use rather than actual tree cover. So, for example, even though an area of land might be completely treeless due to intensive logging activity, it may still be officially classified as productive forest because it is expected to regrow and be logged again. If so, FRA would describe it as “forest.”

New studies may hold the answer to this dispute 14 15, but a firm consensus is only likely to emerge alongside new satellite technologies capable of discerning the actual situation on the ground.

What Are The Different Types Of Forest Clearance?

The two most common ways of clearing forest and woodland are (1) clearcutting (clear-felling or clear-cut logging) and (2) Slash-and-burn.


Clear Cutting Forest in Oregon, United States
Clear cutting in a forest near Oregon, United States. Clearcutting involves the wholesale removal of the trees and stems. Image: Calibas/CC BY-SA 3.0

Clearcutting is a common commercial logging process during which most or all trees in a particular zone are chopped down. It is also used by forestry managers to create certain types of ecosystems or to facilitate the growth of certain species of tree. Whatever the motivation behind it, clearcutting has negative impacts on natural habitats 16 and global warming. 17 The insatiable human demand for arable land and supplies of wood, through methods like clearcutting has led to the loss of a significant proportion of the world’s rainforests. 18

There are several variations of clearcutting. They include: the standard clear-cut method, which involves the wholesale removal of all trees and forest stems, whether or not commercially relevant; the “clearcutting with reserves” method which preserves a few standing stems to maintain a minimal wildlife habitat; and “selection cutting” – a form of timber harvesting or eco-forestry. 19

Slash And Burn

Satellite: Xingu River in Brazil Slash And Burn
Slash-and-burn forest clearance being conducted along the Xingu River – one of Amazonia’s largest rivers – in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil (2011). The photo, taken from the International Space Station shows a 63 kilometer long stretch of the Xingu River. Rivers in the Amazon Basin are its natural highways, which may explain the location of the burning. Photo: © Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

Unlike clearcutting which – generally speaking – is an unsustainable tree clearance activity, slash-and-burn (sometimes called fire-fallow cultivation) is a primitive farming method, seen mostly in tropical and subtropical forests. Another related method is known as assarting, which is the clearing of forests, without any burning. This would be much more environmentally friendly.

The Slash-and-burn Method Has 3 Stages

First, all the trees and woody plants in an area are cut down. Trees that grow fruits, nuts, or are useful for building purposes may be spared. Then the downed trees and vegetation, (the “slash”) is left to dry. Finally, it is burned, leaving a nutrient-rich layer of burned biomass which gives the soil added fertility, as well as temporarily eradicating weeds and pests.

Typically, within five years, productivity falls due to depletion of nutrients along with weed and pest infestation, causing the farmers to abandon the plot altogether and move to a new area. Usually, the original plot recovers within five to twenty years, making slash-and-burn a crude precursor to more modern forms of bioenergy creation from biomass. 20

Researchers estimate that as many as 200-500 million people use slash-and-burn around the world. 21 According to one survey, there is an estimated 500,000 smallholders in Brazil alone, each of whom on average slashed and burned an average of 2.5 acres of forest per year. 22 Unfortunately, wood burning simply exacerbates global warming by instantly emitting all the carbon in the fallen trees and shrubs.

What Are The Effects Of Deforestation?

A forest is not just a collection of trees and plants: it acts as an integrated ecosystem and home to the most diverse range of species on Planet Earth. Furthermore, forests play a major role in the carbon and water cycles that permit life to exist on the planet. When forests are destroyed or degraded, their disappearance triggers a series of changes impacting on life around the globe. Here are 5 of the most serious effects of deforestation and how they impact on the forest biome.

1. Deforestation Causes Global Warming

Forests act as carbon sinks. They remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air – a process known as carbon sequestration – thus reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. In fact, forests currently absorb about one quarter of the CO2 humans add to the atmosphere, keeping climate change from getting even worse. Of the 39 billion tons of CO2 that we emit into the air each year, 28 percent is removed on land, mostly by forests, 23 and around 25 percent by oceans. The rest stays in the atmosphere. 24

Where Do Forests Store Carbon?

All organic matter, like trees, plants, grasses and other forest biota contains carbon that forms CO2 when emitted into the atmosphere.

• Vegetation. Although the above-ground part of the plant is the only visible part, half the plant’s carbon resides in the below-ground biomass (the root system). Dead wood and ground litter, that is, dead plant biomass, is an important source of nutrients for plant growth. This live and dead biomass contains half the tropical forest’s store of carbon.

• Soil organic matter, the humus. When litter decomposes it forms humus. Organic soil acts as an extremely important reservoir of carbon. Soil contains half the tropical forest’s store of carbon. (See also: Why is Soil So Important to the Planet?)

In all forests of the world combined – that is, tropical, temperate and boreal – roughly 31 percent of the carbon is stored in the biomass and 69 percent in the soil.

How Much Carbon Do Forests Contain?

• Tropical forests alone contain 228-247 billion tons of carbon: equivalent to more than seven times the amount discharged each year by human activities. 25

• Between the years 1990 and 2007, virgin forests and those forest areas recovering after disturbances like lumber harvesting, are estimated to have absorbed roughly 4 billion tons of carbon per year – equivalent to almost 60 percent of emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture combined. 26

2. Deforestation Emits Carbon Dioxide

When trees or plants are cut down and burned, or otherwise removed, they stop absorbing CO2 and start emitting it. Which is why deforestation and forest degradation account for a whopping 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. 27

According to the World Resources Institute 28 , during the period 2015-2017, annual CO2 emissions from deforestation in tropical countries averaged 4.8 billion tons per year. That’s more greenhouse gas emissions every year than 85 million cars would produce over their entire lifespan.

And it’s getting worse. Average annual emissions in the last three years are 43 percent up on the annual average of the preceding 14 years.

These CO2 emissions contribute to rising temperatures, polar ice melt, loss of biodiversity, changes in weather patterns, and an increased rate of extreme weather events, like tropical cyclones, droughts, flooding and the like.

3. Deforestation Disrupts The Water Cycle

Trees and forest plants play a critical role in the local water cycle, because of transpiration. This is the process whereby moisture flows through trees and plants – from their roots to small stomata under their leaves, where it changes from liquid to vapor and is released into the air. Trees and plants store water for the benefit of themselves and their forest ecosystem. Then by transpiring, they recycle the water into the air around them – exerting a cooling effect on the surrounding air – providing moisture for the forest biomass and soil, thereby conserving rainfall and preventing surface run-off during heavy rainfall. 

4. Deforestation Increases Soil Erosion

Trees and tree roots anchor the topsoil, preventing soil erosion on slopes, riverbanks and elsewhere. Without trees, erosion can sweep the land into streams and rivers. Typically, the agricultural plants that replace forest trees cannot hold onto the soil. In fact, many of these plants – including palm oil, soybean, cotton, coffee and wheat – can make soil erosion worse. Researchers estimate that, since 1960, a third of the world’s farmland has been lost through soil erosion and other types of degradation. See also: What is the Pedosphere?

Deforestation removes the valuable protection afforded to the soils in a dynamic ecosystem. It causes desertification and silting of river banks, while soil that previously had sufficient tree shade now bake in the sun, leading to further erosion and a reduction in soil fertility. So farmers cannot even profit from the land even after clearing it. According to a report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), deforestation is a major cause of desertification.

5. Deforestation Reduces Biodiversity

Eighty percent of the world’s land-based species live in forest biomes. 29 When species lose their forest habitats, they are typically unable to survive in the small patches of remaining forest. Their numbers start to dwindle and some species become extinct.

This loss of biodiversity from forest clearance costs a whopping $4.5 trillion each year, because 50 percent of all pharmaceuticals come from genetic resources in plants and animals. 30

How To Control Deforestation?

1. Action And Support From The United Nations

Deforestation is a central concern in two separate U.N. campaigns.

The first campaign is the U.N.’s high-profile effort to limit the effects of global warming, recently articulated in the Paris Climate Agreement. The agreement put the finishing touches to the UN-REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which was first agreed under the aegis of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) way back in 2005, in order to reduce emissions of CO2 from deforestation activities in developing countries. Most of the UN-REDD plan was finished by 2013, with only the final elements being agreed at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

Hand in hand with UN-REDD is the REDD+ program, a UNFCC-based funding mechanism that supports developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation by conserving forests.

The second campaign to feature forests is the lower-profile campaign for sustainable development, which originated from the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972) in Stockholm, and the more famous United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – the so-called “Earth Summit” – held in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992. Subsequent developments occurred as follows:

• In June 2012, following in the footsteps of the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) – known as Rio+20 – was held (again) in Rio de Janeiro. It adopted a program of “sustainable development goals” (SDGs), on themes such as poverty eradication, energy, water and sanitation, health, and human settlement. The SDGs were to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which terminated in 2015.

• In January 2013, the U.N. General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals was set up to formulate specific objectives for the SDGs.

• In September 2014, the U.N. New York Climate Summit issued the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) which aimed to cut deforestation in half by 2020, and halt it completely by 2030.

• In September 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York adopted a new 2030 Development Agenda, entitled “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” 31 Paragraph 51 lists a total of 17 Sustainable Development Goals along with 169 associated targets and 232 indicators. 32 Sustainable Development Goal number 15 of the UNCSD program aims to “protect, restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.” 33

• The 25 countries with the greatest acreage of forest cover have all incorporated forest protection measures (such as reduced deforestation and forest degradation, afforestation, forest conservation, improvement of forest carbon stocks and agroforestry) in their “Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions” (NAMAs) – the forerunners of the “Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)” which were introduced by the Paris Agreement.” 34

Note: NAMAs are pledges that are valid up until 2020. Thereafter, countries are supposed to implement their NDCs, which come into force after 2020.

• Technical support for developing countries is a constant theme of the U.N. approach to deforestation and climate change. In 2014, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched Open Foris – a suite of software tools that help countries to collect and disseminate data about their forest resources.

2. Conservation Payments

Both the United Nations and the World Bank have developed programs designed to encourage forest conservation instead of deforestation. At the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties-15 (COP-15) in Copenhagen in December 2009, a collective commitment was agreed to by developed countries, for additional resources for forestry conservation totalling almost US$30 billion for the initial period 2010–2012. 35 36

In addition, the U.N. launched the REDD+ program, a financial support mechanism to encourage developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and (the “plus”) practice conservation, sustainable management of forests, and keep carbon locked in the landscape. A recent payment of $96.5 million (March 2019) to Brazil in recognition of its rainforest conservation measures is a good example of how REDD+ works, while overall, the scheme has funnelled over $200 million into deforestation mitigation incentives, involving 44 developing countries.

3. Transfer Of Land Rights

The transferral of land rights to indigenous inhabitants is another strategy for conserving forests, although it can raise protracted legal issues which can sometimes lead to inordinate delays. However, it’s important to understand that indigenous communities look after at least 22 percent (i.e. 293,000 million tons) of the total carbon stored in rainforests across 52 countries. More than 30 percent of this managed area (storing 72,079 million tons of carbon) is located in areas where indigenous communities’ tenure rights have not been recognized.

4. Sustainable Farming Methods


One promising approach is the concept of permaculture (cultivation that accesses natural resources in ways that benefit both consumer and the environment), with agroforest systems carefully designed to mimic natural forests, focusing on plant and animal species of interest for food, timber and other uses. This approach is typically self-sustaining, has a minimal reliance on fossil fuels and agrochemicals, and is beneficial for soil, water quality, and biodiversity.


This method of agriculture involves charring the slashed vegetation, instead of burning it. The resulting carbon-rich biochar may then be combined with crop residues, food or animal waste and buried in the soil to form self-regenerating terra preta – one of the richest soils on the planet. 37

5. Reforestation

Although trees are wonderful CO2 scrubbers, new trees do not always have the same beneficial impact. For example, reforestation programs in subarctic bioregions tend to have a limited impact on climate mitigation. This is because it replaces a bright snowy sun-reflecting surface with a dark forest canopy. It would be far better to plant new trees in a tropical region. This would lead to the formation of more clouds, which would then reflect more sunlight, thus helping to reduce Earth’s temperature. 38

What’s more, trees have a quicker growth rate in the tropics because they can grow all year round. Trees and plants in tropical climates possess, on average, larger and more abundant leaves than those in non-tropical climes. According to a 2009 study, published in Nature, tropical forests are absorbing more carbon dioxide than scientists thought. The study indicates that almost 20 percent of fossil fuel emissions are soaked up by forests across Africa, Amazonia and Asia.

Study leader Simon Lewis said: “Tropical forest trees are absorbing about 18 percent of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year from burning fossil fuels, substantially buffering the rate of warming.” 39

Can Reforestation Help To Stop Global Warming?

  • Yes. Definitely. The IPCC clearly emphasized the role of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) in their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. 40 Indeed, about 25 percent of all planned improvements in emissions, as outlined by countries in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Climate Agreement, were accounted for by reducing deforestation and improving forest management.
  • Putting a stop to the degradation of forests and promoting their restoration has the potential to contribute over one-third of the total climate change mitigation that scientists say is necessary by 2030. 41
  • According to a statement released by a group of 40 scientists, spanning five countries, the world could secure 18 percent 42 of the emissions mitigation needed by 2030, through the preservation and restoration of tropical forests, mangroves and peat bogs. Mangrove ecosystems (along with seagrasses) are particularly valued for the vast amounts of “blue carbon” they capture and store. 43 44
  • Tropical forests also cool the air around them, as well as creating the precipitation necessary for growing food in their bioregions and beyond. 45. Forests suck moisture out of the ground and (by transpiring) release water vapor into the atmosphere, thus regulating local, regional and global patterns of rainfall and behaving as a natural air conditioner. 46. By contrast, deforestation raises local surface temperatures by up to 3°C. 47

For more on this issue, see: Tree-Planting: Is it the Easy Answer to Global Warming?

6. Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR)

This relatively new nature-based approach aims to reverse the damage caused by deforestation and degradation and regain the ecological, climatic and economic benefits of forests. It aims to accomodate the needs of all land users and to facilitate multiple land uses. FLR is not just a tree-planting initiative: it incorporates agroforestry, erosion control and natural methods of forest regeneration. FLR also provides local farmers with knowledge on sustainable agricultural methods.

Countries and other land owners are supporting FLR through the Bonn Challenge – a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and 350 million by 2030, launched in Bonn on 2nd September 2011 by Germany and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in collaboration with the Global Partnership on Forest/Landscape Restoration. A significant number of developing and developed countries have initiated successful landscape restoration programs, including Brazil, China, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Korea, the United States and many more. 48

7. Plantations

Significant areas of deforestation are being cultivated as plantations of single-species trees, usually for lumber or paper production. In places like South America, Oceania, and East and Southern Africa, these areas are typically planted with eucalyptus or other fast-growing species that are invariably not native to the location. Globally however, plantations consist of roughly 18 percent ‘foreign’ species while the remainder are native to the country where they are planted. This applies particularly in North America, West and Central Asia, and Europe. In total, the area occupied by planted forests increased from 4 percent to 7 percent of the world’s forested area between 1990 and 2015. 49 Plantation forests covered 2.8 million square km in 2015, an increase of roughly 40,000 square km over the last ten years. 50

8. Grow Food More Efficiently

Although the history of deforestation shows that local circumstances have tended to dictate the scale and pace of deforestation, a comprehensive study of the history of forests in America confirms that macroeconomic forces may hold the key to halting deforestation. During the period 1700 to 1900, about half the forests in the United States of America were converted to agricultural use. However, over the last century, forests have expanded, even though population and urban growth have themselves accelerated. How come?

The answer is, that advances in agricultural technologies have made it possible to grow more food on less land. As a result, in marginal growing areas, farmland has been replaced by forest through natural regeneration or through tree-planting programs. 51 In addition, new disciplines are being promoted, especially in the areas of agroforestry, forest ecology and hydrology, forest mensuration, tree breeding and silviculture. 52

9. We Need To Invest More In Saving Our Forests

• Researchers have calculated that the benefits of limiting future temperature rise to 1.5°C are likely to be in the range of tens of trillions of dollars – these benefits will exceed all costs by a factor of 30. 53

• ‘Green finance’ comprises a fraction of the ‘grey finance’ flowing into nations with high levels of deforestation; development finance for agriculture amounts to 15 times more than climate finance for forestry. 7

• Forests can provide almost a quarter of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed before 2030, according to emissions targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement, but as yet receive only 3 percent of available climate mitigation finance. 28

• Support to protect tropical forests consists of less than 1.5 percent ($3.2 billion) — of the $256 billion committed since 2010 by U.N., other multilateral institutions and developed countries to combat global warming. The renewable energy sector alone has received over 100 times more financial support than forests. 7

What Is The Rate Of Deforestation?

Estimates of global deforestation vary unbelievably.

• On the one hand, since the “New York Declaration on Forests” at the U.N. Climate Summit (2014), the global average rate of deforestation has risen significantly from the baseline period of 2001–13, increasing from an average loss of 18.3 million hectares (45 million acres) to 26.1 million hectares (64.5 million acres) per year. 7

• On the other hand, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO), deforestation was limited to 8.9 million acres of pristine tropical forest in 2018. 54

Despite the huge discrepancy in today’s rate of forest clearance, the historical position is much clearer.

• During the period 1950-2019, more than half of the world’s tropical rainforests disappeared – a total loss of between 7.5 million and 8 million square km (about 3 million square miles) of the original 15 million square km (5.8 million square miles). At this rate, the extinction of these forests will occur by the mid-21st century. 55

• Since 1900, roughly 90 percent of West Africa’s coastal rainforests have been destroyed, 56 while Madagascar has lost 90 percent of its eastern rainforests. 57

• In South Asia, about 88 percent of the rainforests have been lost, leaving them with a precarious future. 58 Much of what remains of the world’s rainforests is in the Amazon basin, where the Amazon Rainforest covers approximately 5.7 million square kilometres (2.2 million squares miles).

• The greatest loss of forested areas (2014-18) took place in South America, where the deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest continues apace. The fastest rate of increase (100 percent) was in Africa. An area of forest equivalent to the size of the UK is disappearing every year around the globe, despite pledges made by governments at the U.N. New York Climate Summit in 2014 to reverse deforestation and restore trees. 59

• With greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise around the world, global temperatures are rising, leading to a major increase in wildfires. In 2019, an estimated 9,000 square kms (3,500 square miles) of rainforest within the Amazon biome (Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru) has been lost to fires. 60

• In 2019, Arctic fires sparked by unseasonably high temperatures blazed across the northern circumpolar region. Fires in Siberia and northern parts of Russia destroyed 43,000 square km of boreal forest. 61 In Canada, 18,000 square km were lost, while in Alaska 670 square km were destroyed. In the southern hemisphere, Australian bushfires (2019-2020) devastated 186,000 sq km of forest and bushland across NSW and Victoria.

Finally, Some Good News…

Despite the high visibility reports of wildfires and deliberate burnings in Brazil and Siberia, many countries have been able to stabilize and even expand their forest areas. During the period 2005–2010, some 80 countries reported either an increase or no change in their forest coverage. Countries reporting increases include several of the world’s largest forested countries: the United States of America, China and India. In Europe, 27 countries reported increases in forest coverage, led by Spain, Italy, Norway, Bulgaria and France. In Asia, countries with significant increases, in addition to China and India, include Turkey, Vietnam and the Philippines. In Latin America countries posting increases include Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica. In Africa, the largest increases in forest area are in Tunisia, Morocco and Rwanda. 51


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