Deforestation: An Introduction

by Nicole Gray

Deforestation is the process of clearing forested land, often via burning. Typically, this land is then used for agriculture or infrastructure; however, deforestation also occurs for timber and mining purposes [1,2]. At the end of the last ice age 57% of the world was covered by forests, yet today coverage sits at 31% and continues to fall [3,4]. 

Tackling Deforestation: An Imperative Measure Against The Climate Crisis

Halting and reversing deforestation is crucial for tackling the climate crisis and promoting long-term wellbeing of people and the planet. Forests are natural carbon sinks, removing ? of annual CO2 emissions from the atmosphere through photosynthesi [5]. Thus, as forests are lost the risk of warming grows, both because less CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and because CO2 stored in vegetation is released back into the air. Regarding the latter, current estimates suggest that deforestation accounts for 15% of global emissions [6]. The problem is worsened as evidence suggests tropical forests are losing their ability to sequester carbon — taking up ? less CO2 than they did in the 90’s due to higher temperatures and the increasing frequency of droughts [6,7]. By 2030 these forests may no longer be carbon sinks but carbon sources [8]. 

In addition to the impact on global CO2 levels, deforestation also leads to the following: loss of biodiversity; water security threats; soil erosion; desertification, and an increased risk of future pandemics. Deforestation is also linked to breaches of human rights, as indigenous communities that own, live in, and rely on these forests for survival unwillingly have their land converted and livelihoods destroyed [9]. 

Deforestation: Causes And Trends

Estimates suggest that the expansion of agriculture is responsible for 70-90% of deforestation globally, though different drivers prevail in different regions [1]. In Europe urbanisation is the biggest cause of deforestation, in Africa and Asia it is cropland, and in South America it is livestock farming [1]. The highest rates of deforestation have historically been seen in tropical forests — the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and key to preventing future pandemics [1,10]. And while when we consider the globe as a whole, rates of deforestation have fallen from previous levels, in these critical tropical regions, particularly in the Amazon, rates continue to rise [1]. At present, Brazil is a particular country of concern — the highest deforestation rate ever recorded for the month of January was seen in 2022; five times higher than the rate in January 2021 [11]. This is largely attributed to the Bolsonaro administration, which has been pushing commercial farming and mining in efforts to alleviate poverty, while at the same time implementing budget cuts that make environmental protection of forests harder [12]. Deforestation here hit a 12-year high in 2020 [11]. And while Brazil did sign the COP26 agreement to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, whether this commitment will translate to action is yet to be seen [12]. 

However, it is important to not focus solely on where rates of deforestation are high — we must also consider who is driving deforestation in a globally interconnected world. The demand for commodities and international trade means that some countries ‘import’ deforestation. Specifically China and the EU are the top two drivers of tropical forest loss [13]. In fact, it is estimated that the consumption patterns of G7 countries are responsible for the loss of almost 4 trees per person per year [14]. 

Thus, if the COP26 pledge to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030 is to be achieved, we must consider countries’ ‘deforestation footprints’ and take a transparent transnational approach to fighting deforestation [14]. A reconsideration of global food systems is also required, given future predictions of population and dietary regimes and the stark impact agriculture has on forests. Click here to read part two of this article series, where we consider the combined impact of agriculture and policy on deforestation. 


[1] FAO (2021). COP26: Agricultural expansion drives almost 90 percent of global deforestation. FAO. URL: [Accessed on 18 February 2022]. 
[2] Wasley, A., Jordan, L., Mendonca, E. et al. (2022). Soybean Giant Breaks Pledge on Amazon Deforestation. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. URL:  [Accessed on 15 February 2022]. 
[3] Ritchie, H. (2022). The world has lost one-third of its forest, but an end of deforestation is possible. Our World in Data. URL: [Accessed on 10 February 2022].
[4] Deforestation and Land Use Change. Engage the Chain. URL: [Accessed on 12 February 2022].
[5] Rannard, G. & Gillet, F. (2021). COP26: World leaders promise to end deforestation by 2030. BBC. URL: [Accessed on 17 February 2022].
[6] Deforestation. Carbon Footprint. URL: [Accessed on 18 February 2022].
[7] Harvey, F. (2020). Tropical forests losing their ability to absorb carbon, study finds. The Guardian. URL: [Accessed on 10 February 2022]. 
[8] Hubau, W., Lewis, S.L., Phillips, O.L. et al. (2020). Asynchronous carbon sink saturation in African and Amazonian tropical forests. Nature, 579, 80–87. DOI: [Accessed on 26 April 2022].
[9] Montague, B. (2022). Corporates sustain deforestation crisis. The Ecologist. URL: [Accessed on 11 February 2022].
[10]  Bernstein, A. S., Ando, A. W., Loch-Temzelides, T.  et al. (2022). The costs and benefits of primary prevention of zoonotic pandemics. Science Advances, 8(5), DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abl4183 [Accessed 26 April 2022].
[11] Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon hits new record in January (2022). Al Jazeera. URL: [Accessed on 15 February 2022].
[12] Brazil signs agreement to halt deforestation – but Bolsonaro cannot be trusted (2021). The Coversation. URL: [Accessed on 17 February 2022].
[13] Muzi, N. (2021). Timmermans vs. Bolsonaro: Will the EU get deforestation off our dinner plates? (commentary). Mongabay. URL: [Accessed on 15 February 2022].
[14] Hoang, N.T., Kanemoto, K. (2021). Mapping the deforestation footprint of nations reveals growing threat to tropical forests. Nat Ecol Evol, 5, 845–853. DOI:  [Accessed 26 April 2022].
Categories Food & Agriculture

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