What is deforestation? The facts, causes, effects and solutions

07 December 2020 | Celia Topping

what is deforestation

Can you remember the last time you walked in a forest? The dappled light, the fresh, earthy smells, and the raucous twittering of birds. Pretty nice, huh? Not only are forests a tonic for both mind and emotions, but they're even proven to boost our immune systems. Just a short stroll among the trees can leave us feeling refreshed, calmer and in a better frame of mind.

But, they’re not only a nice place to take a weekend wander. Forests are actually essential to our very existence. They cover 31% of the planet’s surface, and a staggering 80% of the Earth’s animals, birds, insects and plants thrive under their protective canopy. Not to mention the 1.6 billion people worldwide who call forests home, or rely on them for their livelihoods. 

Trees purify the air with life-giving oxygen. They also absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale, as well as lots of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. The rainforests of the Amazon – often called the ‘lungs of the earth’ – create around 20% of the world’s oxygen1. Not only this, but water cycles, weather patterns and soil quality for food production are all affected by tropical rainforests. In short, trees and forests are vital to the continuation of life on Earth. 

Yet, our beloved forests are disappearing faster than you can blink. And it’s humanity’s fault. Since we arrived on planet Earth, we’ve managed to destroy 46% of all forests. And despite understanding the environmental, humanitarian and biological cost of such massive tree loss, the destruction continues. 

What’s driving it? What will happen if it goes on? And, perhaps most importantly, what can be done about it? Read on to find out more about why forests are so important, and what you can do to help protect them. 

What is deforestation?

Simply stated, deforestation is the human-driven clearing of forested land. Historically, trees were felled for fuel, timber for housing, or to clear an area for farming. But as the human population grew exponentially, so did the alarming rate at which trees were cut down. 

In recent years, the destruction has reached epic proportions. National Geographic reckon 15 billion trees are lost a year to deforestation. Between 1990 and 2016, over 1.3 million square kilometres of forests have been razed to the ground. That’s an area bigger than South Africa.

It’s hard to imagine, but even while you’ve been reading this, a forested area about the size of 60 football pitches has been destroyed – much of it illegally. 

What are the main causes of deforestation?

With 7.8 billion people in the world to feed, clean, clothe, house, entertain and sustain, the forests are bearing the brunt of human progress. Here’s how:

How agriculture is causing deforestation

By far the largest contributor to deforestation is agriculture. A small proportion is carried out by farmers, who use the land to grow food for their family’s survival. But the majority of deforestation is caused by commercial and industrial-scale agriculture.

The humble cow is one of the main culprits – albeit unwittingly. Cattle farming, as well as the cultivation of the crops (like corn and soy) needed to feed them is the cause of 80% of deforestation worldwide. And then there’s the ubiquitous palm oil. This edible oil is found in close to 50% of all products, from pizza to lipstick. Add to that cotton, sugar cane and rice, and it’s plain to see the devastating impact of industrial farming taking its toll.

How construction is causing deforestation

Large-scale industry, such as agriculture and mining, needs equally large-scale construction to support it. That means roads, railways, and even airports – plus all the energy needed to maintain them. This accounts for 15% of deforestation worldwide. 

What other factors cause deforestation?

Although agriculture and construction are by far the biggest contributors, there are other factors too:

  • Urbanisation – global urban populations are growing by around 1.4 million people each and every week. This forces change in land use around urban areas, swallowing up more and more forested land. 
  • Mining and drilling  – oil, copper, gold and other rare minerals can only be accessed by drilling after land is cleared of trees. Further problems such as sinkholes, water contamination and soil erosion are also caused by these processes. 
  • Timber –  wood has thousands of uses in the modern world, including furniture, construction, paper, and other products. And that makes logging a widespread, and often illegal problem in the depths of tropical rainforests, despite attempts to keep it in check. 

How does deforestation affect the environment?

causes of deforestation

Deforestation is one of our biggest global issues, for all kinds of reasons. Here are the main ones:

The impact of deforestation on biodiversity

Forests are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. As forests decline, wildlife is squeezed into an ever-diminishing area, with many species unable to relocate and thrive. The loss of creatures like orangutans, elephants and tigers is well-documented.

But the habitat for thousands of other species, from plants and mosses to insects and birds, is also threatened by deforestation. Scientists believe hundreds of species have already become extinct, with many more under threat of the encroaching bulldozers. 

The effects of deforestation on local people

The indigineous people of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia are being severely affected by deforestation. Millions depend on forests for their livelihood, as well as for food on their plates. And often, when commercial companies come to claim their land, indigenous people lose both.

Some companies even commit human rights abuses like forced or child labour, inhumane working conditions, corruption and unfair pay. Many locals have no choice but to work for the big businesses that move into their area. It’s a no-win situation, causing devastating hardship and misery for millions. In turn this can cause social problems and yet more unhappiness.

Read more about the impact of climate change on mental health.

The effects of deforestation on soil quality and food insecurity

Forests are nutrient-rich, from leafy top to earthy bottom. But once tree roots and other vegetation are ripped away, the soil breaks down. Plus, with no lush upper canopies of foliage to protect it, the earth is hammered by the harsh sun and the heavy rains of the tropics. 

The practice of slash and burn agriculture means land becomes infertile and barren for years. And fragile soil leaves areas open to landslides and floods. Poor soil also leads to low food yields, and it eventually turns to desert. It’s a tragic end to what was once a dense tropical jungle, teeming with life. 

The impact of deforestation on climate change

Forests are vital in the fight against climate change. A single tree can absorb 22kg of carbon dioxide a year. Which means an acre of trees can absorb the same amount of carbon as a car being driven 26,000 miles. 

Living trees store away all that carbon, but when they’re cut down or burnt, it all gets released. So deforestation is a tragic double whammy for global warming – because not only do we decrease the amount of carbon our forests are absorbing, but we release a whole lot more that's been stored up for decades.  

In fact, if deforestation were a country, it would rank third in carbon dioxide emissions, behind only China and the US. Now doesn’t that make you stop and think? 

Research shows that protecting and restoring natural systems like forests can deliver 37% of the emissions reductions we need to meet the Paris Agreement.

Learn about the difference between reforestation and rewilding in our guide to rewilding: the practice of letting nature run free and restore itself.

Help stop climate change - Sign OVO's petition

OVO has recently launched a petition calling for a legally-binding tree-planting target across the UK. 

Trees are integral to tackling the climate crisis. Despite that, only around 13,000 hectares of trees are planted each year in the UK. The Climate Change Committee recommends at least 30,000 hectares are planted every year between 2024 and 2050, for the UK to reach its 2050 net zero target.  

Without a legally-binding target in place, the government’s efforts may keep falling short. We’d love you to sign our petition. After all, we know it’s the small actions we take that make a big difference. This is our chance to create real change in the fight against the climate crisis. And with the UK hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) next year, now’s the perfect time for our voices to be heard. 

Help stop climate change. Sign our petition to plant more trees! 

Which areas are mostly affected by deforestation?

Although deforestation is happening everywhere from Europe to Australia, tropical regions face the brunt of it. Here’s what’s happening:

The effects of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest

Emotions are running high In Brazil, as it faces the devastating loss of the world’s largest rainforest. Recent reports state deforestation has reached a new 12 year high – with an area 7 times the size of Greater London (11,088 sq km) being cleared between August 2019 and July 20202.

Many lay blame on the government – whose policies legitimize unsustainable practices like land-grabbing, mining and farming on indigenous lands by loggers and agribusiness groups.

Cattle ranching is the cause of 70 to 80% of deforestation in the Amazon. And a further 10% is caused by mining activities, if we include the infrastructure surrounding the drilling itself. Sadly, over the last 50 years, 17% of pristine tropical rainforest has been irretrievably lost, along with the ecosystems within it. 

The effects of deforestation in Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia And Borneo

effects of deforestation

This region is one of the world’s most biodiverse. But sadly it’s also one of the main hotspots for palm oil production. 85% of the global supply of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Between 1990 and 2000, nearly 6 million hectares of Indonesia’s rainforest was replaced by single species plantations of trees that produce palm oil. 

Dwindling habitat has endangered Indonesia's orangutan population, decreasing it by as much as 50%in recent years. Pressure from NGOs such as Greenpeace has improved the situation, leading to certification standards for sustainable palm oil production. But there’s still a long way to go. 

The effects of deforestation in Africa

Deforestation is tearing its way across the whole of Africa, with 2 million hectares of forest being cut down every year. Nigeria is one of the countries worst hit, with a shocking 90% of its forests ripped down. Again, palm oil is to blame, along with cocoa plantations and mining activities.  

5 things you can do to help stop deforestation

The situation is dire – but it’s not hopeless yet. Positive steps can be taken to help slow down this global problem. And we can start today, right now.

1. Cut down your meat intake

Have you noticed more vegan restaurants popping up around your neighbourhood? Or a plant-based burger stall at your local street food market? Happily, general awareness about the damaging impact of red meat production is on the rise. For example – to produce 2.2 pounds of vegetables takes 3.2 square feet of farmland. Whereas the same amount of beef takes up 225 square feet. Some studies have shown that cutting down 90% of our meat consumption is the single biggest way to stop climate change. Meat-free Monday anyone?

2. Be aware of how much palm oil you’re using

It’s everywhere – and as a National Geographic journalist found, it’s almost impossible to go a full day without using at least one product containing palm oil. Palm oil is not always labelled as such, and it’s astonishing to see the amount of products that contain it. 

Being aware of these products can help you avoid, or at least cut down on unsustainably-sourced palm oil. Look out for Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)-approved products. This way you can be sure best practices were observed in sourcing and producing the palm oil in your chocolates, cosmetics and crisps. 

Read our guide to understanding the difference between eco-friendly, green and sustainable, so you can choose wisely and help save the planet. 

3. Consciously consume less

The first step is awareness. The second is more difficult: action. We live in a consumerist society, where buying a new TV or laptop is as simple as hitting that ‘buy now’ button on your phone. But every new tech product contains materials from the earth.

Back in its lifecycle, it’s likely that several trees were cut down just to help make your shiny new gadget. If we consume less, and use our gadgets for longer, demand drops, production slows, and fewer trees get felled. And remember, it also really helps to vote with your wallet and buy from eco-friendly brands.

4. Reuse and recycle

Do you really need a new one? Maybe think about getting something fixed, rather than throwing it away. Recycling unwanted items, or buying someone else’s second-hand treasure is a great way to reduce the amount of new stuff cluttering up our world. 

5. Lead by example and spread awareness

You’ve read this far – so by now you’re quite the deforestation expert! But friends, colleagues or family members might not be. You don’t have to be preachy… just lead by example, and  tell them what you’re doing to make the small changes we need to help stop deforestation. 

If you’re feeling particularly passionate, perhaps contact your local MP and have a conversation about creating more UK forests, woods and trees, or protecting the ones we still have.

Want to do more? Find out how to reduce your carbon footprint at home, and make changes to stop damaging the ozone layer.

Find out what OVO is doing to green up our planet

ovo tree planting

At OVO, we think trees are great. There's so much to love about them – and there are so many fascinating facts about how they're good for our planet and our health. That's why we’re stepping up our support for tree-planting in the UK. 

We plant a tree for every new OVO member, for every year they’re with us. And when you sign up to one of our home-energy plans, you’ll also get 100% renewable electricity3 as standard. Plus if you sign up to OVO Beyond – our planet-loving upgrade – we’ll plant an extra 5 trees for you each year in the UK, which will absorb 300kg of carbon as they grow! 

OVO Beyond members also help us to support projects protecting forests from deforestation in Guatemala and Uganda. It's just one way we can help protect our planet's ‘lungs’. 

And that’s not all:

  • We’ve teamed up with the Woodland Trust and are committed to planting 900,000 trees over the next year
  • This tree-planting initiative will absorb around 54,000 tonnes of carbon 
  • The OVO Foundation is working with Earthwatch Europe to help plant 12 Tiny Forests (sites of 200m2 of land, with 600 trees per site) in deprived areas of the UK. These forests will be used by teachers as incredible outdoor classrooms to teach children about the environment, and sustainability.
  • Each forest absorbs 450-600 kg of carbon after 4 years of planting. So they’re up to 30 times better at absorption compared to other tree-planting schemes. It means our Tiny Forests will absorb up to 7,200 kg of carbon.
  • There’s so much to love about trees – but do you know all of these surprising facts?

Join us, and help give the world more trees! 

Find out more about how we’re backing renewables as we work towards a zero carbon future, and switch to OVO today.

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