Forest Depletion and Reforestation
Vast areas of virgin rainforest are lost every year, mostly so that land can be cleared to make way for the production of palm oil, chocolate, and cattle. Frances Seymour with the World Resources Institute says, “The world’s forests are now in the emergency room—it is death by a thousand cuts. Band-Aid responses are not enough. For every hectare lost, we are one step closer to the scary scenario of runaway climate change.”
However, there are encouraging signs that recovery is taking place.
Forested areas the size of Belgium are disappearing annually. Most of the destruction is in Brazil, the DR Congo, and Indonesia. But, before we in the enlightened and developed nations criticize these countries, we need to reflect on the forests we have chopped down in our own lands.
Almost half (46 percent) of the forested land that once covered the planet has been cleared of trees. The impetus for denuding the planet has been population growth.
At first, land was cleared for farming and building materials. Flint axes were replaced by metal saws, so the felling of trees sped up, but was still only nibbling at the fast stands of timber.
The real devastation of forests started with the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. By the beginning of the 20th century, an area the size of Ireland had been deforested in central European Russia. Settlers moving West in North America managed an even more impressive clearance: an area twice the size of Japan by 1910.
The process has been the same in Asia and Africa. It’s only since the 1950s that the spotlight on deforestation has been turned on tropical rainforests such as Amazonia and tropical Africa.
We’ve Come a Long Way From Flint Axes
Deforestation and the Climate Crisis
In the context of the climate crisis, the loss of forest cover is critical. Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide in a process known as sequestration. Here’s a report from North Carolina State University: “A tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester one ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old.”
A Science Magazine report looks at what that means on a global scale. European researchers have calculated there is 0.9 billion hectares of land space available on which trees can be planted; that’s an area about the size of the United States. Reforesting that land would not impact agriculture or living space.
The payoff is that “Those added trees could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon in the coming decades, roughly five times the amount emitted globally in 2018.” The researchers put an estimated price tag of $300 billion on such a project, which is really chump change compared to the cost of runaway global heating.
And, speaking of chumps, here comes Doug Ford. He’s the conservative Premier of Canada’s biggest province, Ontario. In April 2019, he cancelled a program aimed at planting 50 million trees as a cost-saving measure.
While dinosaurs such as Doug Ford stand in the way of recovery, others are taking positive action.
Trillion Trees is a coalition of conservation groups that plans to “restore one trillion trees by 2050.” This is a goal that’s far too big for one organization to tackle alone. As Trillion Trees notes, “It requires commitment and action from governments, businesses, non-government organisations, communities, and individuals all across the world, many of whom are already pursuing similar goals.”
And, there are encouraging signs that some major players are joining the program:
- In January 2018, China announced it will plant new forests that will cover an area the size of Ireland.
- At the same time, England announced plans to plant 50 million trees over a 25-year period.
- On a single day in July 2017, 1.5 million volunteers planted 66 million trees in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
- The Guardian reports that “Latin American countries have pledged to restore 20 million hectares of degraded forest and African countries more than 100 million hectares."
- Canada’s former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna stepped in to fund the tree-planting program that Doug Ford axed.
However, we can’t all run around giving each other high fives and shouting “Climate catastrophe averted.”
Thomas Lovejoy is a George Mason University conservation biologist. He tells Time Magazine, “None of this works without emissions cuts.” Simply planting vast numbers of beeches, pines, and maples doesn’t mean we can still buy gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and eight-cylinder pick-up trucks.
- According to an article in Nature, there are “approximately 3.04 trillion” trees in the world, and that more than “15 billion trees are cut down each year.”
- After a comprehensive study, Botanical Gardens Conservation International announced that there are 60,065 species of trees in the world and more than half of these are unique to single countries.
- The countries with the most room for planting new trees are Canada, China, Brazil, Australia, Russia, and the United States.
- Many Japanese people practice shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. This involves simply being among trees and absorbing their aromas, sounds, and dappled light as a way of rejuvenating tired and stressed souls.
- “Mapping Tree Density at a Global Scale.” T.W. Crowther et al., Nature, September 2015.
- “The History of Deforestation.” Sharon L. Cohen, Bizfluent.com, January 26, 2019.
- “Tree Facts.” North Carolina State University, undated.
- Adding 1 Billion Hectares of Forest Could Help Check Global Warming.” Alex Fox, Science, July 4, 2019.
- Trillion Trees.org.
- “A Eureka Moment for the Planet: We’re Finally Planting Trees Again.” John Vidal, The Guardian, February 30, 2018.
- “Planting a Trillion Trees May Be the Best Way to Fight Climate Change, Study Says.” Seth Borenstein, Time, July 4, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor