Deforestation: what can we do?

23 August 2019

Half the world’s forests have been lost to deforestation. But it’s not too late for action, argues leading environmentalist Fred Pearce.



It was a depressing headline: ‘Tree planting in England misses Government’s target by more than 70%’. Only 1,420 hectares were planted in England in the year to March 2019 – an area smaller than the London borough of Islington. England is one of the least-forested countries in Europe, with just a tenth of land tree-covered. With much of England’s forests now serried plantations of pines and other tree crops, natural and ancient woodland make up only about a fifth. Yet, despite a lot of green talk, we don’t seem in a rush to restore them.

This is bad for our souls. Sacred groves, enchanted woodland and scary forests with wolves and witches fill our folklore and nursery rhymes. What we have left is precious. My favourite corner of ancient woodland is Kingley Vale in West Sussex, one of Europe’s best yew forests. Some of the trees are more than 2,000 years old, spared in the Middle Ages when yews were cut to make longbows.

But what we have lost shames us.

Analysts say that demand from European consumers may be driving up to a third of current tropical deforestation – that’s more than China.

We are not alone, of course. Deforestation is a plague on the planet. About half the world’s forests have been lost. The sound of chainsaws has replaced birdsong from the steppes of Russia to the backwoods of Australia. The newest front lines are in the rainforests of Borneo, the Congo and the Amazon, where the carnage is being driven by commercial agriculture intent on supplying global markets with beef, palm oil, rubber and much else. Which makes us to blame. Analysts say that demand from European consumers may be driving up to a third of current tropical deforestation – that’s more than China.

The good news is, it isn’t game over. Almost a third of the planet’s land surface is still covered by around three trillion trees. Consumer pressure to halt the destruction is growing and, perhaps as a result, the pace of forest loss has recently slowed.

In some countries, it has been reversed. Tree cover in Costa Rica crashed from three-quarters to less than a quarter in the mid-20th century, but with the government paying farmers to replant old cattle ranches, it is now back above 50%. Elsewhere, from Nepal to New England, humans are putting back trees on a significant scale, sometimes by planting, often just by giving natural forests room to recover. Europe has a third more trees than it had in 1900, with some of the biggest recent growth in former Communist countries where nature has reclaimed abandoned state farms.

China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, have found room for more trees than they had 30 years ago. In Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, on the edge of the Sahara, farmers have been encouraging trees to grow in their desiccated fields – and are rewarded with better grain yields, richer soils, and other crops of fruit and firewood. The region now has 200 million extra trees that hold back the desert.

This doesn’t mean we have solved the problem of deforestation. Far from it. Promises from governments and corporations made in a declaration in New York in 2014 to halve deforestation rates by 2020 and end it altogether by 2030 look unlikely to be met. But what these green shoots show is that nothing is inevitable. We can call a halt. We can restore many of the planet’s forests.

Let’s be clear. There will be no return to primeval wilderness. In truth there are few virgin forests anywhere. Ancient English woodlands are coppiced. Much of the Congo was reduced to charcoal for iron-smelting a thousand years ago. Even the deepest Amazon is remarkably artificial – peppered with fruit trees planted in the days before Europeans arrived. That may sound dispiriting, but actually it should give us hope. For it shows that the great forests have recovered from human activity before. They can again.

Forest fire
As rainforests get drier due to deforestation forest fires become a real risk. Image © FSC

Why our forests matter

Forests matter for lots of reasons. They are home to more than half the world’s species. They keep soils intact and control floods. They cleanse air and water. They deliver forest products such as fruit, berries, rubber and timber.

Forests manage the water cycle too, storing water in soil to maintain river flows, and recycling the rainfall to make clouds and more rain downwind.

The world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, is a massive rainmaking machine. It has lost a fifth of its trees, and the current Brazilian government seems intent on removing the rest. As a result, rainfall is declining and droughts are lengthening. Scientists warn that a tipping point may be approaching. It’s widely predicted that once two-fifths of the trees are gone, rainfall may cease and the rest of the forest could be engulfed by forest fires.

Above all, forests store an estimated trillion tonnes of carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, adding to global climate change from our industrial emissions. What can we do? To halt the growing climate crisis, the world needs to kick the habit of burning fossil fuels, and to end deforestation.

We need to accelerate the British Government’s pledge to get to zero net emissions by 2050. But to keep warming to the UN target of 1.50 C, we will also need to draw carbon dioxide back out of the air. And the best way of doing that will be by allowing nature to take the lead. That means restoring nature’s biggest carbon stores – forests.

Far-fetched? Well, governments don’t think so. Back in 2011, most of the world signed up to the Bonn Challenge, which promised the restoration of 350 million hectares of forests – an area a little bigger than India – by 2030. There is great potential to restore huge areas of degraded natural forests around the world. They cover an area twice the size of Canada, by one estimate. Left to recover, they could in the process capture up to 3 billion tonnes of carbon every year - roughly the same as China's total emissions.

But this is not just a job for climate politics. There are social movements all over the world determined to restore our planet's great forests. They also want to bring back trees into the places where we live and work - on farms, in city streets, along our coasts, in our gardens and wherever we can find the room.

The Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai won a Nobel peace prize for her Green Belt Movement, whose tree nurseries have allowed Kenyan women to plant more than 50 million trees.

Closer to home in Scotland, crofters and environmentalists are joining forces to buy up big estates, where they start community woodlands, and bring back parts of the ancient Caledonian pine forest. Reforesting Scotland is now a big cause, dedicated to ‘restoring the land and its people’, with paths and orchards, artists’ studios and cattle grazing in the undergrowth.

Hugh Chalmers of the Borders Forest Trust says the Carrifran Valley in the Moffat Hills of southern Scotland is being returned ‘to the rich diversity of native species that existed there 6,000 years ago’. And in the far northwest, on the North Assynt Estate, smallholders Bill Ritchie and Mandy Haggith yearn for the return of bears that would spread the seeds of new trees in their faeces.

I am old enough to remember when the Government exhorted us to ‘plant a tree in ’73 and ‘plant some more in ’74. However hard we work to end our contribution to deforestation in distant lands, it must now be time to get back to planting at home.

How to limit your own deforestation footprint

Most of our impacts on the world’s forests do not come from wood, but from our consumption of agricultural commodities grown on recently deforested land. e eat rainforests in burgers, wear rainforests in our shoes, feed rainforests into our printers and even drive our cars on rubber from former rainforests. The more we consume, the more forests will be cleared. So how can we reduce our culpability?

Cut down on beef and leather

More and more cows are raised on former forest land, especially in the Amazon, which is a major source of leather in our shoes, belts, handbags and the rest. And while not much of our beef comes from there, a lot of livestock raised for meat is fed on soya beans grown in the Amazon.

Visit our vegan recipe section for plant-based meal ideas

Check the label

Wood is not bad; it is natural and renewable. But when buying wood products make sure they have a Forest Stewardship Council label, the label means the wood wasn’t cut illegally. Also, always buy long-lasting wood products, not something you will replace in five years.

Coffee, tea and chocolate are all grown in tropical forested areas. Look for logos of reputable certifiers of sustainability, such as the Rainforest Alliance. You are not just cutting your own forest footprint, you are also sending a signal to deforesters to clean up their act.

Recycle paper

Staggeringly, each of us throws away a quarter of a tonne of paper a year. To minimise the damage, always buy recycled paper, and make sure you recycle it yourself afterwards. Don’t do unnecessary printing. And print both sides. Much of our printing paper comes from the rainforests of Indonesia. A lot of the rest is from Canada, where biodiversity is less, but trees regrow much more slowly.

Avoid palm oil

Palm oil is widely grown on deforested land, and it is in around a third of supermarket products, from peanut butter to cosmetics, and biscuits to noodles. Eating fewer processed foods is the best way out. Next best: look for the logo of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It is far from perfect, but probably means the oil wasn’t grown on recently deforested land.

Fred Pearce is a consultant for New Scientist magazine and has written numerous books on environmental science

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