The Earth’s Forests are at their tipping point

Written by Nimesh Zaveri

The average life span of a tree in the amazon is approximately just over 300 years old, and have lasted generations, though due to deforestation these trees are being cut down [1]. Deforestation is one of the most critical contributors to climate change and is estimated to contribute 25% of World greenhouse gases, excluding the levels of CO2 that is stored by the trees which would be released into the atmosphere as each tree is cut down [2]. 

The health of forests is vital in tackling climate change; however, it is estimated that the level of forests worldwide has fallen by 3 percent from 1990 to 2015. Less trees means more CO2 in the atmosphere and less oxygen for us to take in [3]. What could be more important than survival? 

Some reasons provided for tree cutting include; cattle grazing, Agriculture, logging, wood for fire and building Infrastructure, which is used in Brazil to help boost their economy [2]. A stronger economy potentially means a better life for the citizens of Brazil, however, as is the case with many developing countries, the National income increases but the level of poverty remains the same due to an unequal distribution of the supposed wealth increase [4]. Not to mention the increasing ecological costs.  

Regardless of the benefits to society for deforestation, we must acknowledge that there are biophysical limits for this planet to engage in the current level of economic activity. Ecological economist Herman Daly introduced the concept of sustainable scale prompting a paradigm shift. Now, we must understand that continuous economic development is ultimately dependent on the Earth’s ability to support our economic activity, therefore economic growth is a means to an end.  Hence, the level of economic activity must be kept within ecological limits. Furthermore, as we use resources they should not be exploited to the point where the ecosystem can no longer regenerate the resource, therefore trees need to be replanted efficiently to avoid permanent damage such as land degradation soil erosion [5]. 

Human development will always put a strain on the Earth’s ability to support us which leads us to the 9 Planetary boundaries. These are a measure of the Earth’s system processes [6] in which four of these boundaries have been crossed which poses a great risk to the Earth’s system responsible for providing the environment that we are familiar with [7]. Deforestation is one of the causes for land-system changes which occurs when forest land is converted into agricultural land resulting in biodiversity loss, changes in; water flow and many elemental cycles [8]. 

These changes prove that some impacts of deforestation are irreversible such as the destruction of habitats and land degradation has impacted biodiversity on a global scale [9]. In India it is estimated that India 37 out of 75 million hectares of land has been degraded arising from economic activity with the production of timber. The land is no longer fertile deeming the planting of trees impossible; therefore the only solution is decreasing economic activity [10]. 

Realistically, it is not feasible to completely stop all economic activity relating to deforestation, however there are possibilities for sustainable forestry, hence not hindering the ability of the Earth’s systems to support us. The obvious solution to deforestation would be reforestation [11]. Perhaps there is the option to replant trees, though due to the rate of deforestation worldwide there is little time for animals and plants to adapt to this land change resulting in species extinction, such as in Singapore, over the last two centuries, the loss of habitats has exceeded 95% resulting in momentous levels of inferred and documented extinctions throughout South-East Asia [12]. 

There are policies, which can help achieve sustainability such as Command and control regulations ensuring negative environmental activity does not exceed limits which are causing land-system changes. Hefty fines and penalties can be issued on firms that do exceed. Regulation may discourage people to exceed limits, but it does not encourage them to reduce activity altogether, which is why taxing may be more productive. The Pigouvian tax is a tax on negative externalities, which are unintended losses caused by economic activity, for example the loss of carbon sequestration. The tax is likely to reduce activity as it will become more expensive for firms to cut down extra trees. A combination of the two solutions may be the most viable with the main objective to slow down and decrease the magnitude of deforestation that is occurring today [13].     

A change is imminent, we have already crossed some of our limits, however if we are to prevent the current state of the planet from getting worse, action needs to be taken immediately and Regulatory authorities all over the world need to be proactive with the situation at hand. 

 

References 

[1] Staff, L. 2019. The Ancient Trees of the Amazon. [online].[Accessed 17 Nov 2019]. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/3979-ancient-trees-amazon.html  

[2] Bennett, L. 2017. Deforestation and Climate Change.

[3] Fountain, H. 2019. A Respite From Record Losses, but Tropical Forests Are Still in Trouble. [online]. [Accessed 17 Nov 2019]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/climate/tropical-forest-deforestation.html 

[4] Koop, G. and Tole, L. 2001. Deforestation, distribution and development. Global Environmental Change. 11(3), pp.193-202.

[5] Daly, H.E., 2005. Ecological economics: The concept of scale and its relation to allocation, distribution, and uneconomic growth, Chapter 23 in E. Fullbrook (Ed.) A guide to what’s wrong with economics. Anthem Press: London, pp. 253-258.  

[6] Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., et al., 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. 347 (6223), p. 736.

[7] Bergnehr, L. (2019). Four of nine planetary boundaries now crossed – Stockholm University. [online]. [Accessed 17 Nov 2019]. Su.se. Available at: https://www.su.se/english/about/news-and-events/press/press-releases/four-of-nine-planetary-boundaries-now-crossed-1.218003 

[8] Stockholmresilience. 2019. The nine planetary boundaries – Stockholm Resilience Centre. [online]. [Accessed 17 Nov 2019]. Available at: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/planetary-boundaries/about-the-research/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html

[9] Allan, J., Venter, O., Maxwell, S., Bertzky, B., Jones, K., Shi, Y. and Watson, J. 2017. Recent increases in human pressure and forest loss threaten many Natural World Heritage Sites. Biological Conservation. 206, pp.47-55.

[10] Jewitt, S. 1995. Special Paper: Voluntary and ‘Official’ Forest Protection Committees in Bihar: Solutions to India’s Deforestation?. Journal of Biogeography. 22(6), p.1003.

[11] Cunningham, S., Mac Nally, R., Baker, P., Cavagnaro, T., Beringer, J., Thomson, J. and Thompson, R. 2015. Balancing the environmental benefits of reforestation in agricultural regions. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. 17(4), pp.301-317.

[12] Brook, B., Sodhi, N. and Ng, P. 2003. Catastrophic extinctions follow deforestation in Singapore. Nature. 424(6947), pp.420-423.

[13] Daly, H.E., Farley, J., 2011. Sustainable scale. Chapter 22 in  Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nd ed. Island Press: Washington, DC, pp. 427-440.