Deforestation: Tackling the Root of The Problem

Written by Anna Sandbach

Despite only covering 7% of the Earth’s surface [1], tropical forests store an astonishing 25% of global carbon [2]. Furthermore, they contain around 65% of global biodiversity [3] and provide a crucial source of essential medicines [4]. Given the global significance of tropical forests, in particular their vital role in climate mitigation, it is essential that we protect the ecosystem. Tropical forests offer 23% of the climate mitigation required to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goals by 2030 [5] and therefore have the potential to play a critical role in tackling the pressing global issue of climate change. Nonetheless, the demands of a growing economy are accelerating global tropical deforestation rates [6]. As a result, tropical deforestation is currently operating at an unsustainable scale.In ecological economics, “scale” is defined as the physical size of the economy relative to the functioning of global ecosystems [7]. A sustainable scale is achieved when the economy utilises natural capital and ecosystem services within a “safe operating space” [8] whereby the ecosystem can continue to provide resources and absorb wastes.

Many ecological economists argue that the worldwide economy has surpassed its maximum sustainable scale [9]. Since 1980, 21% of global tropical forests have been lost [10]. This has contributed to around 20% of anthropogenic carbon emissions [12] and has resulted in significant destruction of ecological habitats. The demands of growing economies are causing rates of forest loss to exceed rates of forest growth [11]. This is exhausting the ecosystem, thus causing ecosystem losses. Hence, global tropical deforestation is operating at an unsustainable scale, whereby the Earth’s limits are being surpassed.

These alarming rates of deforestation are driven by the complicated interaction of indirect and direct forces [13]. Indirect forces of tropical deforestation occur because of economic, demographic and political drivers [14]. Economic development is the key indirect driver of tropical deforestation [15]. As economies develop, demand for high-quality products such as meat, soy and timber will increase [16]. Rising demand will be encouraged to be met by land owners, especially if prices are inflated, meaning they can generate larger profits. To do this, land owners will clear areas, thus contributing towards tropical deforestation at an unsustainable scale. Increased population pressure is also a significant indirect driver of tropical deforestation; between 1950-2010 the global population almost tripled [17]. This resulted in a significant increase in global resource demand [18], such as wood and agricultural land, consequently resulting in tropical deforestation at an unsustainable scale. Finally, political factors can play important indirect drivers in tropical deforestation; lack of regulations and policies implemented by a government will allow for the exploitation of tropical forests [15], often through deforestation, at an unsustainable scale.

Direct drivers reflect human driving forces, which directly influence the environment. Agriculture is estimated to be the responsible direct driver for around 60% of tropical deforestation [12]. This is primarily a result of livestock production, which requires over 75% of global agricultural land [19]. Infrastructure development is also a significant direct driver of tropical deforestation; tropical forests are often utilised for oil exploitation, dam construction and transportation routes [13]. Further direct drivers of tropical deforestation include logging, mining and urbanization [12]. These direct drivers collectively contribute to an increased demand for land and resources. Consequently, the yield of trees and other ecosystem services will exceed their rate of regeneration, thus causing the adverse effect of unsustainable scale.

Growing economic needs are resulting in trees being lost at a faster rate than they are being regenerated, and this is resulting in significant global implications, such as climate change and ecosystem losses. It is essential that we recognise the importance of managing tropical deforestation at a sustainable scale. Furthermore, it is crucial that we identify and implement approaches to ensure that tropical deforestation operates within these sustainable limits. This is particularly important given the expected population of 9 billion in 2050 [20].

So, what can we do? It is important that we prioritise the future advantages of tropical forests as opposed to focusing on their finite short-term benefits. We must reduce our consumption of products which require vast areas of land, for example through the adoption of vegetarian diets. By reducing society’s consumption, and therefore demand, for these products there will be less incentive for producers to produce them, thus limiting tropical deforestation. The implementation of governmental regulations, such as logging bans and taxes on environmentally degrading products, would further be effective in limiting tropical deforestation. Nonetheless, here it is important to recognise that alternative incomes should be considered for those workers whose incomes depend on this production. It is imperative for changes to be made to ensure that tropical deforestation operates on a sustainable scale. The loss of such valuable biomes will have drastic global impacts, and it is important that further damage is prevented.

 

References 

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[11] Baccini, A., Walker, W., Carvalho, L., Farina, M., Sulla-Menashe, D. and Houghton, R.A., 2017. Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss. Science358(6360), pp.230-234.

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