The problem of deforestation in the fight against climate change
The forests that populate our planet play a crucial role in naturally and effectively reducing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.
Nearly one third of the Earth's surface is covered by different types of forests and, because of the important role they play within the ecosystem, protecting them properly is more important than ever. They are essential natural environments, not only for biodiversity development, but they are also important due to their role as natural carbon reservoirs and sinks at a time when greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still very high.
The problem we are currently facing with forest cover at the international level is that it has been decreasing over the years, mainly due to external agents related to human action, such as deforestation or degradation. These activities have put their preservation in jeopardy and could lead to fatal consequences in the fight against climate change if they continue in this way.
The role of forests
Forests are indispensable players in the battle against the climate crisis, due to their ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. So if they disappear, this carbon would remain in the atmosphere.
Like all other plants, algae, and a wide variety of bacteria, trees perform photosynthesis. In this biochemical process, they convert the CO2 they absorb from the atmosphere, as well as the water and sunlight they take in through their leaves and roots, into molecules of glucose and other sugars needed for their survival. As forests are large tracts of land where a large number of trees and plants coexist and carry out this process on a regular basis, a sink is created in the area where this natural process considerably reduces the level of carbon dioxide in the air.
The type of photosynthesis performed by the trees is called oxygenic and has the particularity that, in addition to capturing carbon dioxide, it also releases oxygen during conversion. Thus, trees are not only responsible for the important task of reducing CO2, but they also generate a large part of the oxygen necessary for the well-being of all living things.
Deforestation and degradation
Despite the importance of forest areas for climate change, there are two fundamental problems caused by human activity that fully affect their conservation and jeopardize how this entire system operates in absorbing emissions.
First, there are the processes of deforestation, which consist of removing an area of trees, both long-term and permanently, to devote that land to other activities such as agriculture, mining, or urban development. According to data obtained from the latest report by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), an estimated 10 million hectares have been deforested annually between 2015 and 2020. These forest ecosystems are destroyed, primarily in South America and Africa, mostly to be made into agricultural land.
It is also worth noting the concept of imported or incorporated deforestation, that is, the destruction of forests to produce raw materials, not for domestic consumption but for sale to other countries. One third of this type of deforestation from 1990-2008 was caused by the EU economy for products such as cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, and soy. New community initiatives are now working to avoid and counteract these effects for consumption.
Additionally, forest areas can also be affected by degradation. This phenomenon damages forests causing their density, quality, or richness to deteriorate, directly impacting their role within the ecosystem and their performance as a carbon reservoir and sink. The main reasons for this loss of forest cover are forestry for timber and fruit production, as well as slash-and-burn agriculture that uses fires and their resulting ash as a form of fertilizer. Insect plagues, plant diseases, and severe weather events may also be causes of degradation.
The FAO report “The State of the World's Forests 2022” also notes forest fires as one of the most damaging causes currently for forest deterioration. This situation has been getting even worse over the years, as noted by the UN in its latest published research, with fires set to occur more frequently and to become stronger.
Impacts of deforestation and forests degradation
The consequences of forests disappearing and becoming degraded will have a direct impact on climate change, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, as a result, the effects of GHGs.
But, in addition, there are other types of very significant impacts that are also worth knowing and taking into account.
- Zoonotic diseases. Increased transmission of this type of disease between humans, insects, and animals may occur when reducing the forest area and increasing the interaction between them.
- Damaging effects from flooding. Forests are also responsible for keeping the soil in good condition and absorbing water, which helps to slow surface runoff and reduce damage from flash floods, water level rises, and heavy rains.
- Effects on climate. Trees provide shade, generate humidity, and interact with air currents, which affects the temperature of the area where they are located and the amount of precipitation.
Deforestation: current situation
The turning point in deforestation was in the period of the industrial revolution, which, together with the increase in population that came with this process, marked a tipping point in the destruction of the forest cover. Since then, the rates of destruction have continued to accelerate until the present day.
This data is very concerning, but it seems to be showing signs of reversing, since in the last decade the rate of net forest loss has been reduced. Thus, everything seems to point to the fact that the rate of deforestation has at least slowed down a bit.
Africa is the region with the highest annual rate of net forest loss, followed by South America. But while, in the case of Africa, the rate of net forest loss has increased, in South America it has decreased by almost half in recent years. On the other side of the scale, we also find regions that, in addition to decreasing their forest losses, have also increased their forest areas, thanks to practices such as reforestation. This would be the case in Asia, which recorded the largest net gain in forest area from 2010-2020, followed by Oceania and Europe.
In addition to preserving the forests we have and maintaining their quality, one of the best solutions to alleviate the effects of deforestation and degradation is the reforestation or afforestation of affected areas. But to take full advantage of its potential, several important factors must be taken into account that can influence the results.
First, there are different types of forests depending on their climatic location (tropical, subtropical, temperate, subarctic) and their human impact (whether the forest is primary, secondary, mature, etc.). Not all types store and absorb the same amount of carbon, so when planting new trees and offsetting emissions, it is essential to keep this factor in mind. In addition, new forests that have been created from reforestation are less dense and have less biodiversity than forests with no human disturbance, and their capacity to capture CO2 is also lower.
There are several types of plantations in terms of reforestation that can be carried out and must be properly managed to be as optimal and sustainable as possible.
- Forest plantations, or timber plantations. Plantations designed to harvest forest products such as timber and are subject to felling and growth cycles.
- Natural forest planting, or reforestation. Their objective is only to restore the ecosystem and offset emissions.
According to FAO data, South America and Oceania are leaders in the creation of forest plantations, while Europe leads in the rest of plantations
The fight against deforestation
Many international partnerships and plans have been carried out in recent decades to try to put an end to deforestation. In particular, it is worth highlighting some of the most relevant ones that marked a change in this field:
Another major turning point took place at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, where 141 countries — including Russia, Brazil, and China, which together account for more than 1.4 billion hectares of forest area — signed the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forest and Land Use. This document included a commitment to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. More recently, Egypt's COP27 has also put the spotlight on this issue, by affirming the commitment of the 25 participating countries to achieve the deforestation targets set at the previous summit and, to that end, earmarking additional funding.
At the European Union level, in November 2021 the European Commission presented a proposal to regulate the sale of products associated with deforestation and forest degradation. This proposal imposes a series of requirements on the import, export, production, and sale of certain products, establishing traceability and due diligence mechanisms to ensure that they are not related to deforestation.
These proposals all began as part of the international framework and have helped to improve the situation of forests around the world with varying degrees of success. For the most recent initiatives to flourish and become even more effective, they need collaboration, both public and private, and significant advances in innovation and in the search for new technological tools. Only in this way can a solid and lasting global fight be established to effectively protect forests.
At the upcoming event, The fight against deforestation and climate change, organized by the Repsol Foundation Energy Transition Education and Research Program at the University of Barcelona on Dec. 1, there will be a presentation of the report "Deforestation policies in the framework of the fight against climate change", which establishes the most relevant agreements and initiatives being developed to stop deforestation.