Deforestation in the pursuit of rootless economic growth: A matter of scale

Written by Jannes Reichl

In 2017, we lost one football pitch of forest every second [1]. From the dawn of the industrial revolution up until now, the global forest cover has decreased from 5.9 billion hectares to nearly 4 billion hectares [2]. During this same period, the global economy has grown excessively. These are not two coincidental facts. The big driver behind deforestation is our ever-growing global economy that demands more than what the forests can sustain. Therefore, deforestation is happening on an unsustainable scale.

Scale represents the physical size of our economy relative to the ecosystem in which the economy is embedded [3]. The economy extracts materials from the ecosystem to produce goods, services and waste [4]. This throughput activity consumes energy as well. The amount of extraction should be kept on a sustainable scale. As stated by Santa-Barbara et al., to ensure sustainable scale, we should “harvest renewable resources below the natural regeneration rates of all critical ecosystem services associated with the specific throughput activities” [3, p. 4]. This rule of thumb enables us to thrive, without limiting the prosperity of future generations [4].

So sustainable scale implies that when we cut down trees, we should not only make sure that the forest can grow back to its original tree capacity, we must also consider the various other services the forest has to offer to its environment, such as soil protection and habitat space to foster biodiversity [5]. If these ecological services disappear, it would become very difficult for the forest to flourish and maintain its tree capacity.

Between 1990 and 2010, we have lost more than 3% of the global forest cover [6]. Hence, deforestation is happening on an unsustainable scale, since we lose more trees than that we gain. Since forests take carbon out of the air and nurture biodiversity, deforestation worsens climate change and biodiversity loss. These two environmental issues have already surpassed their sustainable limits [7]. Therefore, deforestation also negatively impacts other environmental problems. To understand the factors that cause this harmful deforestation, I have split them up into proximate causes and underlying causes [8, 9].

Proximate causes have a direct impact on deforestation and are mainly caused by human action. On a global scale, agriculture is the proximate cause for around 80% of deforestation [8]. A big share of this new won agricultural land is used for cattle ranching and growing crops to feed this immense livestock [10]. Palm oil plantation also plays a significant part in this agricultural cause. Other proximate causes for deforestation are mining, infrastructure, urban expansion and wildfires [8]. Overall, these causes show that the majority of forests that disappear do not have a chance to restore themselves, since the land is now used for these new throughput activities to serve economic growth.

Underlying causes have an indirect impact on deforestation. These causes operate on a global scale and consist of economic, political and social factors that influence each other [8]. The biggest underlying cause is economic growth [8, 11]. Research shows that a price increase for meat and soy causes an increase in the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon [12]. This relationship is caused by the fact that, when meat or soy prices rise, farmers can expect a higher profit from cutting down forest and using it for agriculture. This mechanism shows how underlying and proximate causes of deforestation are strongly interlinked. Another important underlying cause of deforestation is population growth [8]. The continuous growth of our global population boosts economic growth, by increasing the demand for those products that are the main drivers behind deforestation.

To tackle deforestation, we must focus on policy measures that reduce the demand for products that cause deforestation. Since one of the biggest causes of deforestation is cattle ranching, policies that decrease the demand for meat are very effective. Governments could increase taxes on meat and promote plant-based diets. Likewise, countries could decide to only import sustainably sourced palm oil, which the Netherlands is already doing [8].

Overall, deforestation is happening on an unsustainable scale and economic growth is the main cause for this. Deforestation is a complex issue, driven by proximate and underlying factors that interconnect with each other. The forest enables biodiversity to thrive, gives us oxygen and fights climate change by taking carbon out of the air. Therefore, we should be grateful for all the services that the forest offers unconditionally. Humankind is responsible for deforestation, so we have to work together on a global scale to implement the required policy measures to fight this mindless destruction of our global forest.


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