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Global deforestation and forest growth over 30 years

Forests are our planet’s great carbon sequesters, and they are a key source of wildlife habitat and vital resources for people around the world.

But deforestation threatens this natural infrastructure, releasing carbon into the atmosphere while reducing the diversity of wildlife and making our environment more vulnerable to environmental disasters.

This graph examines global deforestation and forest growth over the past 30 years, mapping net forest change by country and region using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The state of deforestation by region

Today, forests make up about 31% of the Earth’s total area, covering 15.68 million square miles (40.6 million km²). Over the past three decades, the world has lost just over 4% (685,300 square miles) of its forests, equivalent to an area roughly half the size of India.

Europe and Asia were the only two regions that experienced significant overall forest growth during this period, while Oceania saw no significant change and North and Central America experienced slight reduction.

Region Change in forest area (1990-2020) Percent change in forest area
Asia +146 718 km² + 6.10%
Europe +88 803 km² + 2.26%
Oceania +1 057 km² + 0.0015%
North America and Central America -7722 km² -0.27%
Africa -409,268 km² -16.64%
South America and the Caribbean -501,932 km² -15.40%
World Total -685,401 km² -4.19%

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Africa, along with South America and the Caribbean, have been the regions most affected by deforestation, both having lost more than 15% of their forests in the past 30 years. This is largely due to the fact that these two regions have large forest areas available, the underlying land being in high demand for agriculture and livestock.

Although the net loss of forests globally is massive, the rate of forest loss has slowed over the past three decades. While an average of 30,116 square miles was lost each year between 1990 and 2000, between 2010 and 2020 that number fell to 18,146 square miles, showing that the rate of deforestation has declined by almost 40%. .

Countries and drivers of deforestation and forest growth

Despite an overall slowdown in deforestation, some countries in South America as well as Africa as a whole are still showing an increase in the rate of deforestation. Most of the countries with the greatest reduction in forest area are located in these regions:

Country Net change in forest area (1990-2020) Percent change in forest area
Brazil -356,287 km² -15.67%
Indonesia -101,977 km² -22.28%
Democratic Republic of Congo -94,495 km² -16.25%
Angola -48,865 km² -15.97%
Tanzania -44,962 km² -20.29%
Burma -41,213 km² -27.22%
Paraguay -36,463 km² -36.97%
Bolivia -26,915 km² -12.06%
Mozambique -25,614 km² -15.29%
Argentina -25,602 km² -18.84%

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Brazil, home to most of the Amazon rainforest, experienced a net loss of forest of 356,287 square miles, much of it fueled by farmers using the land to raise cattle for beef. We think that 80% of the deforested area of ​​the Amazon has been replaced by pasture, with the resulting beef production known to be among the the worst meats for the environment in terms of carbon emissions.

The other major driver of deforestation is seed and palm oil agriculture. These oils represent approximately 20% global carbon emissions linked to deforestation, and their production, concentrated in Indonesia and Malaysia, is now spreading to other Asian countries as well as to Africa.

As demand for beef and palm oil drives deforestation, initiatives like the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) provide incentives to protect forest land.

Some European Union countries as well as the United Kingdom and South Korea have pledged $ 494.7 million to six Central African countries (Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea Equatorial and Republic of Congo) to preserve their forests and pursue low-emission pathways for sustainable development. The initiative has so far seen $ 202 million transferred and an expected reduction of 75 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Forests and the climate crisis

Forests are estimated to absorb around 30% of global carbon emissions each year, making them the largest and most important carbon sinks we have on earth. When you combine this with the fact that deforestation contributes about 12% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, the importance of forest preservation becomes even clearer.

But we often forget how forests protect our environment by acting as natural buffers against extreme weather conditions. Forests increase and ensure precipitation safety, making neighboring land areas considerably less susceptible to forest fires and natural droughts during hot and dry seasons, as well as floods and landslides during wet seasons.

Every dollar invested in landscape restoration pays off up to $ 30 In terms of benefits, reducing deforestation and investing in reforestation are seen as an effective way to reduce the difficulty and costs of meeting climate and environmental protection goals. That’s without even considering the benefits of sustaining the world’s largest wildlife habitat and source of species diversity, home to nearly 70 million indigenous people who live in the forests, and the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people. people who depend on forests every day.

Preserving and regrowing forests for the future

Despite the short term accelerating forest loss seen in 2020, there have been positive signs of forest regrowth. A recent study found that previously deforested land can regain soil fertility in about a decade, and that plant, tree and layered species diversity can be restored in about 25 to 60 years.

At the same time, in some cases these growing “secondary forests” can absorb more carbon dioxide than “primary forests”, giving rise to hope that a global reforestation effort can absorb more emissions than previously thought. previously.

From better financial incentives for local farmers and ranchers to preserve forest area to larger-scale policies and initiatives like CAFI, tackling deforestation and promoting reforestation require a global effort. Reversing deforestation in the decades to come is an intimidating but necessary step towards stabilizing the climate and preserving the environment on which billions of animals and people depend.


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