International Day of Forests: Signs of hope but not out of the woods

03/20/2015 08:01 PM

Did you know that China reversed its deforestation trend in 1989 (PDF: especially pp. 13,14) and has expanded its forests by close to 47 million hectares, according to national data collected by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This translates to a 33 percent increase in forest biocapacity, based on Global Footprint Network’s calculations.

Or did you know that Costa Rica brought the destruction of its forests to a halt in the mid-1980s after a 47 percent drop in its forest land biocapacity since 1961, then climbing again by 9.2 percent since 2000?

Or that the top net exporters of forest products are middle- and upper-income countries that are rich in forest biocapacity, with the largest ones being Canada, Russia and Sweden? And that the top net importers are China, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan? This refutes the hypothesis that forest overharvesting linked to biodiversity loss is mainly driven by high-income countries liquidating assets of low-income, tropical countries, although unreported illegal logging may be skewing the underlying data.

This is not to say that the overall global scorecard of forests' health is a good one, however. Our planet lost 183.8 million hectares of forested area between 1961 and 2011, according to the U.N. FAO. And the dilapidation of forests marches on, as forest ecosystems are being sacrificed to primarily agriculture but also logging, mining and economic development.

According to Global Footprint Network's Ecological Footprint accounting framework, our planet lost more than 365.5 million global hectares (gha) of forest biocapacity over the same five decades. What does this mean? That the capacity of our planet to generate additional forest material year over year has been greatly diminished.

Meanwhile, the demand for forest products (paper, timber etc.) has increased by 41 percent over those 50 years, and the need for carbon capture, an ecological service that forests provide, has surged by more than 260 percent. Assuming that carbon emissions stop increasing now and that we quit consuming forests products, it would take twice the current global forest biocapacity to absorb all the carbon emissions that are generated around the world. A crazy feat if you consider this would be equivalent to virtually the entire biocapacity of cropland and grazing lands on the planet combined.

Last but not least, the loss of biodiversity is one of the most significant negative impacts of the destructive human activities that forests are subjected to. Tropical rainforests, which cover 7 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, provide habitat for at least two-thirds of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, still accounts for 3 percent of the world's forest biocapacity despite a 15.1 percent drop in its forest land biocapacity since 1961. In this period, it destroyed 23 million hectares with an intensification of the deforestation between the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Judging by our most recent data, overharvesting of forest products primarily in forest ecosystems in Asia (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan) and Africa (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania) seems to be the result of local demand rather than consumption outside the nations’ borders. But there also may be additional timber trade that is not recorded on the official books.

Experts agree, and available data seems to confirm it: Global deforestation has been slowing down, especially in the Brazilian Amazon, which contains a whopping 27 percent of the world's forest land biocapacity.

However, illegal and unreported logging activities happening under the cover of legal permits adds a degree of uncertainty to this picture. The development and enforcement of international agreements such as the U.N. Forum on Forests, national policies such as China’s Forest Law and corporate actions by companies such as Asia Pulp and Paper Group are obviously still a work in progress.

Tomorrow, on March 21, the world observes the International Day of the Forests for the third year in a row, as established by a 2012 United Nations General Assembly resolution to focus on the critical role of forests for our sustainable development and that of future generations.


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