Causes, effects and solutions to deforestation

Forests are critical to the survival of our planet and the species that occupy it for many reasons. Aside from providing important resources and natural habitats, forests purify our air and water and protect against climate change.

Despite the role that forests play in our planet’s ecosystems, we continue to lose more and more forest cover every year.

As little as 10,000 years ago, 71% of the Earth’s surface was covered by forests, shrubs, and wild grasslands. Only around 38% of this greenery still exists today, and it’s estimated that 10 million hectares of forest are cut down each year.

The main culprit for these tremendous losses? Deforestation; the clearing of forested land. Forests are cleared to make space for urbanization, agricultural processes, and to obtain wood for fuel, manufacturing, and construction purposes.

To better understand the devastating impacts and potential steps forward, this article will fully examine the causes, effects, and solutions to deforestation.

What are the main causes of deforestation?

Though most forests are cleared to make room for agricultural expansion, some of the other main causes of deforestation might surprise you.

1. Agricultural expansion

Agricultural activities are responsible for at least 80% of tropical rainforest deforestation. Whether local subsistence farmers or large-scale commercial agricultural operations, forests are being cleared around the world to keep up with soaring human populations.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, large-scale commercial agriculture – primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and oil palm – accounted for 40% of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010, and local subsistence agriculture for another 33%.

Deforestation in Malaysian Borneo due to palm oil plantation
A satellite image showing deforestation in Malaysian Borneo for oil palm plantation
Source: Wikimedia / NASA

In more recent years, Earth lost about 4.2 million hectares of humid tropical primary forest, an area about the size of the Netherlands. Nearly half of this loss was due to food production, mostly of commodity crops.

Ecologists warn that this commodity-driven deforestation is permanently changing the landscape: these areas will most likely never be forests again, as opposed to forests cleared by wildfires and forestry management (that grow back over time).

Our forests are home to valuable nutrients, but when they are cleared for agriculture, these nutrients are lost and farmers cannot benefit from them. 

Forests are also cleared for cattle ranching: around 80% of deforestation occurs to make space for cattle to graze. When this land is cleared, it’s unlikely it will be a forest again.

2. Climate change

Climate change is considered both a cause and effect of deforestation. 

It’s widely accepted that climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events and abnormal temperatures, which increase the chances of drought, wildfires, and flooding.

These extreme weather events severely damage forests, and they are only getting more severe as climate change worsens. Climate change will continue as deforestation does, as lost forests release more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In addition, there is much more carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere than existing forests can successfully absorb.

3. Logging

Despite our increasingly digitized world, we still rely heavily on wood for paper, firewood, and a plethora of household furniture and products. Trees are cut down to produce these items, as well as to build commercial and residential structures.

While it is possible to harvest timber sustainably, illegal logging activities usually don’t follow these techniques. Illegal logging has become a huge cause of deforestation, as more and more individuals cut down trees illegally to support themselves financially.

signs of illegal timber logging
Signs of illegal timber logging in the Philippines
Source: Wikimedia

Between August 2003 and 2004, an area of 26,130 square kilometers – around the size of Belgium – in the Amazon rainforest was destroyed, most of it illegally. Today, it is estimated that around 60-80% of logging in the Amazon is illegal.

The U.S. Agency of International Development estimates that the illegal timber industry is worth $51-152 billion each year. This massive operation not only damages our environment but also prevents local communities from legally benefitting from forests for food and economic security.

4. Mining

Mining extraction and processing efforts around the world indirectly and directly damage almost all areas of the environment, and forests are no exception. The construction, operation, maintenance, and extraction of raw materials from the Earth requires the clearing of large amounts of land.

In a 2022 study, it was found that 3,264 square kilometers or 326,400 hectares of forest was directly lost due to industrial mining, with 80% occurring in only four countries: Indonesia, Brazil, Ghana, and Suriname.

an open pit mine in the forest
Destruction of the old-growth forest at the village of Teghut to construct an open-pit copper and molybdenum mine
Source: Wikimedia / Sara Anjargolian

Mining caused indirect forest loss in two-thirds of the countries investigated in the study. The building of infrastructure for mineral processing, storage, and transportation is one of the ways that mining indirectly causes deforestation.

The long-term impacts of mining on the Earth’s forests is unknown, but as long as the global population continues to expand, the demand for mineral resources will continue to rise. And, unless deforestation solutions are implemented, our forests and environment will continue to pay the price.

5. Urbanization and population growth

The global human population is projected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050, and potentially peak at nearly 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s. Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and this proportion is expected to rise to 68% by 2050.

This rapid growth has negative implications for all areas of our environment, from increased air and water pollution to the destruction of our forests to grow food and produce resources. Forests are also cleared to make room for urban development and growing cities.

Global demand for food and resources leads to increasing deforestation rates. 

Even in areas where the population is low, external forces such as demand for timber or cattle in other parts of the country or world can lead to deforestation in these areas.

Deforestation is also not exclusive to undeveloped countries: an individual in an industrialized country is likely to consume 60 times more of the world’s resources than an individual in a less industrialized nation.

Addressing this particular cause of deforestation is a complex undertaking because many areas around the world are continuing to expand and industrialize.

What are the harmful effects of deforestation?

Deforestation harms our planet in several ways. From environmental to social and economic impacts, we are already seeing the consequences of the loss of our Earth’s forests.

1. Climate change

The loss of forests around the world is fuelling the ever-growing climate crisis in indirect and direct ways.

3 key ways that deforestation directly leads to climate change according to The Rainforest Alliance:

  • Trees naturally absorb and store carbon dioxide. When they are cut down, we lose them as resources in keeping excess carbon out of the atmosphere.
  • Even more emissions are released when felled trees release the carbon they’d been storing, and rot or burn on the forest floor.
  • Livestock and fields for crops most often replace forests, emitting large amounts of even more greenhouse gasses. Taken together, these emissions account for a quarter of all emissions worldwide.

Trees act as filters for the water we drink and the air we breathe, meaning that the less trees cover the Earth, the more susceptible our resources are to pollution.

As a by-product of photosynthesis, oxygen is produced and released by trees. It’s estimated that one large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people.

In one year, a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of harmful carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and release oxygen in exchange.

Trees help protect water quality by capturing, storing, and using rainfall. Trees reduce the amount of runoff that carries pollution off of the landscape and into nearby rivers and lakes. This process also decreases the rate and volume of stormwater flowing through local storm sewers.

With the loss of our nutrient-rich forests, air and water pollution are causing more harm to our communities.

2. Loss of biodiversity

Forests are home to more than three-quarters of the world’s life on land, meaning that they are incredibly biodiverse. Biodiversity is essential to all life on Earth: without a wide range of animals, plants and microorganisms, our interconnected ecosystem cannot continue to provide us with the air and food we all require.

Forest biological diversity refers to all forms of life within forested areas and the ecological roles they perform. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, forests contain:

  • 60,000 different tree species
  • 80% of the world’s amphibian species
  • 75% of the world’s bird species
  • 68% of the world’s mammal species

When forest ecosystems are damaged, these species are all put at risk. Animals are forced to flee and seek new habitats that may not be best suited for them, and plant species become more and more endangered. Today, more than 1,400 tree species are critically endangered and in urgent need of conservation action.

Deforestation critically threatens that plant and animal species, and in turn, us as humans, that rely on forest ecosystems to provide critical biodiversity for our entire planet.

3. Soil erosion and desertification

Clearing forests and other vegetation causes soil erosion, which is when soil is removed or eroded from its original position. Deforestation leads to increased soil erosion because when trees and plants are removed, their roots no longer hold the earth in place, leaving the underlying soil vulnerable to water and wind.

When soil is covered with vegetation, its organic matter is continually being replenished as leaves, fruits, and animal droppings fall to the ground and are broken down by microorganisms. In the absence of trees, soil composition is changed over time and made even more vulnerable to erosion as its organic matter is depleted.

soil desertification
Human activity, climate change, and deforestation can make previously fertile land arid

Deforestation also plays a part in an advanced form of land degradation known as desertification. Desertification occurs when the biological state of land is destroyed or greatly damaged, resulting in desert-like conditions that make it difficult to support life.

The expansion of agricultural lands, deforestation, and overgrazing of animals on land can lead to desertification. These activities negatively affect soil’s ability to retain water and nutrients.

Thus, deforestation renders our soil more susceptible to damage that makes our land less able to support vegetation and crops and leads to increased water pollution.

4. Social and economic disparity

Aside from permanently damaging the landscape of our planet, deforestation impacts human livelihoods and wellbeing.

Surprising facts about human-forest interaction

  • Approximately 750 million people, including 60 million Indigenous people, live in forests.
  • Forests provide more than 86 million green jobs.
  • An estimated 880 million people spend part of their time collecting fuelwood or producing charcoal. 
  • Over 90% of people living in extreme poverty are dependent on forests for at least part of their livelihoods.

Communities that reside in forests rely directly on the biodiversity of forests to support themselves, whether using products derived from the forest for food, shelter, energy, medicine, and income. Wood and other forest products provide an estimated 20% of income for rural households in developing countries with access to forests.

Deforestation poses a threat to the livelihoods of millions of people, as forests are clearly interconnected with social and economic activities in both developing and developed nations. The continued loss of forests puts millions of people in jeopardy.

What are the solutions to deforestation?

Though the effects of deforestation are incredibly dire, there are several actions that both individuals and corporations, agencies, and governments can take to preserve the health of our world’s forests.

1. Sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agricultural practices are helping combat the alarming rates of deforestation caused by agriculture around the world and helping restore the productivity of degraded lands.

Agroforestry is one example of such practice: agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems. Integrating trees with crop and animal farming leads to several benefits:

  • Trees planted on farms can help connect forest fragments, benefitting migratory animal species.
  • Shady trees can help improve the health of soil.
  • A canopy of trees regulates the temperature and humidity of crops.
  • Fruit-bearing trees can provide extra sources of income for farmers.
maize and chestnuts in agroforestry
Corn and chestnut in agroforestry
Source: Wikimedia / DEFI-Écologique

In the U.S., there are five widely recognized categories of agroforestry:

  • forest farming
  • alley cropping
  • silvopasture
  • riparian forest buffers
  • windbreaks

These methods all aim to produce more sustainable animal and crop farming operations.

Integrating trees with farming is a more sustainable alternative to razing forests for agricultural lands. By opting for more sustainable agricultural practices, farmers don’t need to jeopardize the state of our forests.

2. Reforestation

Reforestation is the process of planting new trees in a previously-forested area that has been deforested or destroyed by natural disasters like wildfires, drought, and disease.

As the U.S. Forest Service explains, reforestation requires complex land management decisions that ensure the efforts take place at the right time and with the right tree species for a given area.

reforested area
Reforestation after logging in southern Oregon, USA
Source: Wikimedia / Downtowngal

This solution can be implemented by planning for the natural regeneration of a forest, or by planting trees, saplings, or seeds. Accelerating the development of forests on deforested land is critical to protecting our communities, soil, and resources for years to come. 

3. Making more sustainable choices

Although many solutions to deforestation involve government agencies and corporations, there are several steps that individuals can take to help combat the loss of our precious forested ecosystems.

Here are just some of the ways you can help combat deforestation rates around the world:

  • Adopting healthier diets and consuming less meat.
  • Recycling and reusing discarded material to reduce the demand for raw wood materials.
  • Purchase certified sustainably sourced wood products and avoid buying tree-sourced products altogether.
  • Plant native species of trees.
  • Educate yourself and others on deforestation.
  • Support forest conservation organizations such as the Rainforest Action Network, the World Wildlife Fund, The Sierra Club, and others.  

Over time, these greener choices will help make a difference in the harmful effects of deforestation.  

4. Laws and regulations

Organizations are calling for stricter and more expansive regulations that require companies to source timber sustainably and crack down on illegal logging operations. Significant investment can also incentivize farmers to adopt more sustainable farming practices.

Illegal logging, one of the main causes of deforestation around the world, is oftentimes a result of weak governance and corruption in countries that produce timber. Consumer countries have also failed to ban the import of illegally-logged timber, allowing for continued damage to be done to our forests.

In 2022, the European Union passed a law that requires companies to ensure that a series of products sold in the EU do not come from deforested land anywhere in the world. While this type of legislative action discourages companies from buying illegally-logged timber or supporting deforestation efforts, more concrete action must be taken.

5. Protecting the forests we have

Overall, the best solution to deforestation is to halt or greatly reduce the destruction of forests around the world. 

Forest conservation also plays a crucial role in combating deforestation. Conservation efforts in forests aim to preserve all natural resources found within a forest and the benefits derived from forests, as well as plant and maintain newly-forested areas.

coniferous forest
Protecting existing forests is crucial in combating deforestation

Forest conservation efforts are complex and differ depending on the forest. Protecting an existing forest from illegal logging may be all that is required in some cases, whereas vulnerable newly-planted forests need to be protected against changing weather and climate conditions.

When extracted, timber should be sourced from well-managed forests and organizations like The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC is a world leader in sustainable forest management and operates the most rigorous and trusted forest certification system that ensures forests are managed sustainably.

Wrap up on the causes, effects, and solutions to deforestation

Forests are not only some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet, they also are interconnected with our communities, atmosphere, and waterways in critical ways.

Now that we’ve examined the causes, effects, and solutions to deforestation, it’s clear that to destroy our forests means putting plant and animal species at risk and causing economic disparity among the people that rely on forests for their survival.

However, you can do your part by advocating for our Earth’s forests and continuing to understand the complex issue of deforestation.

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