Deforestation and forest degradation
When agriculture, mining, urban development or other land uses replace forest, the land is said to have experienced deforestation. By contrast, degradation is a gradual process through which a forest's biomass declines, its species composition changes or its soil quality declines. Degradation often precedes deforestation.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the global forest area shrank by an annual average of 3.3 million hectares between 2010 and 2015, with most losses in the tropics.
While still significant, the rate of annual net loss of forest has slowed from 0.18% in the 1990s to 0.08% over the last five-year period. However, this is largely because of an increase in forest cover in temperate and boreal regions. In Africa and Latin America, rate of the loss is significantly higher, at 0.54% and 0.43%, respectively.
Forest loss and degradation affect forest-dependent communities, wild species and the global climate. To limit climate change and preserve biodiversity, it will be essential to reduce the rate of deforestation and forest degradation, increase the amount of carbon stored in forests and improve forest management.
In 2008, the EU called for the loss of global forest cover to halt no later than 2030, and for gross tropical deforestation to decline by at least 50% by 2020. More than 45 tropical countries are developing jurisdictional programmes to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) and many countries target the forest and land-use sector in their National Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Drivers of deforestation and forest degradation
Drivers of deforestation and forest degradation are context specific and they vary across regions and countries. Globally, however, deforestation and forest degradation are mainly driven by a switch to agriculture to satisfy a growing demand for a few commodities – mainly palm oil, soy, cattle (beef and leather) – and to respond to the demand for bioenergy (fuel-wood, charcoal).
Human activities that drive forest degradation include overgrazing, demand for fuel wood and charcoal, excessive logging and human-induced fires. Natural causes of degradation include insect pests, storm damage and natural fires.
The main driver of deforestation in the tropics is demand for land on which to grow crops or raise livestock. Other significant drivers of deforestation are mining, infrastructure development, urban expansion and logging.
Increased demand for food, feed and fuel, in combination with poor forest and land-use governance results in agriculture being the major driver of deforestation. This is confirmed by recent studies that estimate that up to 80% of deforestation worldwide is caused by agricultural expansion.
In Africa, where population growth is high and agricultural productivity is low, subsistence farming remains the main cause of deforestation. However, commercial agriculture is playing an increasingly important role in deforestation there and it is already the main driver of deforestation in Latin America and South-East Asia.
The steady growth of middle-income countries means that global commodity markets will increasingly drive deforestation. Much of this deforestation can be attributed to just a few commodities: beef and leather, soy, palm oil, sugar, cacao, timber, pulp and paper.