Since September I’ve been studying the premaster Environment and Resource Management. There, we’re studying world problems. Here on this blog I’ve talked about concrete actions to live more sustainable and compassionate. Eco-positive living, that’s what I call it. Yet, I’ve come to realize that I haven’t gone into the biggest issues just yet. From now on I want to do that, discussing a world problem on this blog. Today I’ll start with one problem: deforestation. What is deforestation and what is so bad about it?
Discussing world problems
I mention world problems all the time. Ocean acidification, deforestation, climate change and even more. But what do they mean? And why do we have them? What are the consequences? I’ve never really gone into them. I mention them, but who says all my readers know what I mean by them. Let’s say I mention: this causes the oceans to acidify. It sounds bad, but what’s really so bad about it? That’s why I want to write these articles. For myself too, to really get into a subject and know all the details. Adding a world problem to this list every once in awhile, I’ll really get an understanding of the full picture of world problems.
Why this subject
Now, whenever I say: ‘this is a cause of deforestation’, I guess everybody can imagine deforestation is a bad thing. If you’ve seen footage of deforestation your gut immediately tells you: this is bad. But what is so bad about it? What systems are affected by deforestation? And why do we want to avoid it? That’s what I want to sum up in a understandable way in this blogpost, since scientific papers can be really difficult to read. So that whenever I mention deforestation in another blogpost, you can refer to this post to read once again what is so devastating about it. Useful right? At least, I figured so.
There are several types of forests, but the tropical forests suffer the highest deforestation. The Amazon (as we’ve all seen on the news lately), The Congo Basin and and the Sumatra forests for instance. We see the most deforestation in developing countries, which means that they are not as wealthy as us (the western world). Because they are poor, they are willing to cut down forests. They need money to escape poverty. It’s not such a weird idea. Europe used to consist of a lot of forest area too, but we’ve cut most of it down the last couple of decades. In 1960, about 32% of the earth were forests, today we have about 30% (The World Bank, 2019).
Now, that might not seem like a lot. But these numbers are about all forests on earth, not only tropical forests which we see in the news so often. The bottom line is that the total number is going down in a relatively short time. In some regions of the world there is a growth in forest area, but the total number goes down.
Devastating effects of deforestation
- When forests are removed, the ground temperature rises (Shukla, Nobre, & Sellers 1990)(Nobre, Sellers, & Shukla, 1991). So, all in all, the area gets warmer. And as we see global warming now accelerating, we don’t need any more warming.
- There is less rainfall when forests are removed (Shukla, Nobre, & Sellers, 1990) and less evapotranspiration (plants that release water into the atmosphere)(Nobre, Sellers, & Shukla, 1991). All in all the area gets dryer. In extreme dry areas life (for mostly plants and humans) is nearly impossible (think about deserts). We need water to live. This gives us even less area available on earth, while the world population is growing. And when there is still rain in dry areas, it is in extreme amounts. The earth’s system is totally out of balance without vegetation.
- Without forests the length of the dry season increases (Shukla, Nobre, & Sellers, 1990)(Nobre, Sellers, & Shukla, 1991). I’ve just mentioned why dry areas are something we don’t need. Long dry seasons also increase forests fires. If there’s any vegetation still in the area, the chance of it surviving is smaller since there will be more fires.
- Removing forests results in biodiversity loss (mammals, insects, birds etc.) (Shukla, Nobre, & Sellers, 1990) (Laurance, 1999). Half of the world’s species live in forests and we think we haven’t even discovered all species yet. We might have even caused extinction of species which we hadn’t discovered yet. We humans think we are the only ones on the planet, while we are just one species. Biodiversity is something we rely on as well. I think we’ve all seen the sad videos of orangutans being driven out of forests because they are burned down. It’s horrible.
- Forest loss is related to pollinator loss (Shukla, Nobre, & Sellers, 1990)(Brooks, Sodhi, & Ng, 2003). Pollinators (bees, butterflies, etc.) pollinate plants, so fruits grow on plants. Without pollination, plants don’t produce food. We need pollinators for our food. Without pollinators we lose about 84% of our food (Gallai, Salles, Settele, & Vaissière, 2016).
- Forests take up CO2. Now, we know that the high amount of CO2 is causing climate change. We all want to reverse that effect. The only option we have is to plant trees, because trees take up CO2. We don’t have man-made technology to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. We need to plant more trees, instead of cutting them down.
- Research shows that complete destruction of the Amazon tropical forest could be irreversible (Shukla, Nobre, & Sellers, 1990). Once we’re over the tipping point, there is no going back. We can’t build something like the Amazon tropical forest ourselves. If we can’t reverse the proces, how are we going to explain this to future generation?
- The loss of forests causes oil erosion (Shukla, Nobre, & Sellers, 1990). As we’ve seen above, a deforested area gets warmer and drier. Due to this, there will be soil erosion. The soil won’t take up water anymore, it’s basically a dead zone.
- Indigenous groups are driven away by deforestation (Laurance, 1999). We are forcing people who have lived in the forests for a long time to leave their property. They have managed to sustain the forests, because they understand the value. We’re basically just grabbing their land. Can you imagine that? Your house or land being taken away, just because of someone else’s greed.
- Without forests, no more medicines can be derived from forests (Laurance, 1999). We have found valuable medicines in plants. This gives us the ability to save lives on a daily basis. All because substances have been takes from forests. What about future medicines? We sure haven’t discovered all medicines to all diseases. What if there’s a medicine for a lethal disease in a forest we have cut down.
These arguments are all proven. But a lot is still uncovered. There might be even more devastating effects (if that’s even possible). We already know it’s this bad, so why continue? That’s a difficult matter. I know we can’t solve this problem easily. But this blogpost was just to show what we are talking about when we talk about deforestation. It’s devastating, isn’t it?
What Causes Deforestation?
If we want to do something about deforestation, we want to know what causes it. Luckily, this has been identified by OurWorldInData and below I’ve included their graph. As we can see there, 41% of deforestation is caused by beef consumption! So, by becoming a vegetarian we could already save such a big share of forests. The second thing that causes most deforestation are oilseeds, they cause 18.4%. That’s why it’s important to avoid palm oil. Personally, I try to avoid oils all together, since they’re a processed food. So, here you have it. Become vegetarian and avoid especially palm oil and we can reduce deforestation by almost 60%!
Today I’ve used some scientific sources in my blogpost. If you want to read more, here’re the references:
Brook, B., Sodhi, N., & Ng, P. (2003). Catastrophic extinctions follow deforestation in Singapore.Nature.
Gallai, N., Salles, J.-M., Settele, J., & Vaissière, B. E. (2016). Economic valuation of the vulnerability of world agriculture confronted with pollinator decline.HAL.
Laurance, W. (1999). Reflections on the tropical deforestation crisis.Manaus: Elsevier.
Nobre, C., Sellers, P., & Shukla, J. (1991). Amazonian Deforestation and Regional Climate Change.Maryland: Journal of Climate.
Shukla, J., Nobre, C., & Sellers, P. (1990). Amazon Deforestation and Climate Change.American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The World Bank. (2019). Forest area (% of land area). Opgehaald van data.worldbank.org: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.FRST.ZS