Cutting down on global deforestation

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been hearing about deforestation, usually expressed as an area of old-growth forest the size of x number of soccer pitches being lost per minute/hour. Globally, more than two billion hectares of forest have been lost to human actions – an area twice the size of the continental United States. However, a change of leadership in Brazil and a new EU initiative give rare pause for optimism on deforestation, as I explored in the Business Post in December.

EVERY YEAR, the world loses an area of natural forests the size of Italy in a global pulse of deforestation that has been ongoing for centuries, but has dramatically accelerated in recent times. Since 1900, more than one billion hectares of forests have been cleared – and with them, countless species and ecosystems that evolved over millions of years have been swept away.

Over half of all wildlife in the world’s forests has disappeared in the last 40 years alone, a 2019 study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found. “When animals are lost from forests, this has severe implications for forest health, the livelihoods of more than a billion humans who depend on forests, and our opportunity to mitigate against climate disaster,” the WWF stated.

Along with its catastrophic consequences for biodiversity, deforestation is also a major source of global carbon emissions, second only to fossil fuel burning. While countries like Ireland, whose natural condition would be that of a temperate rainforest, have long since lost their native forest cover as land was cleared for agriculture, today there is far greater awareness of the wider consequences of deforestation.

Efforts to stem the tide have enjoyed two major boosts this year. First was the victory of Lula da Silva in the recent Brazilian elections. He has committed to reversing the ecocidal policies of Jair Bolsonaro, the outgoing president, under whom deforestation of the Amazon rainforest – both legal and illegal – as well as attacks on indigenous forest dwellers, increased sharply.

Another initiative that may help stem the tide of destruction sweeping the Amazon and other forests has just been announced by the European Commission in the form of a law to ban the import of a range of products linked to deforestation.

This law followed a public consultation involving more than 1.2 million people that found strong support within the EU for action on deforestation and biodiversity loss. “Consumption of beef, palm oil, soy beans, wood, cocoa and coffee in the EU drives deforestation and forest degradation across the world,” the commission said.

Companies found to be in breach of the rules will face fines of up to 4 per cent of their annual EU turnover.

The new regulations aim to guarantee to EU citizens that the products they buy and consume do not contribute to deforestation. How effective such regulations will be in practice remains to be seen. Supply chains can be notoriously opaque, making it difficult for European authorities to be certain that goods being imported are truly in compliance.

Given the vast profits to be made from illegal deforestation, it is inevitable that efforts will be made to bypass any oversight. The EU is planning to use a digital tracking system to help pinpoint the exact origin of goods, along with a country benchmarking system to determine the risk of deforestation.

The bloc is also committing to working with producing nations to help them improve forest governance, and to provide compliant countries with EU support and funding to help them adapt to the new regulatory regime.

An impact assessment carried out by the commission estimated that the new law would safeguard around 72,000 hectares annually and reduce carbon emission by around 32 million tons, the equivalent of roughly half of Ireland’s annual emissions.

However, given that ten million hectares are being lost to deforestation every year, the EU’s target in reality amounts to protecting less than 1 per cent of threatened forests.

While moves to block imports of beef from deforested lands may appear to offer a boost to Irish agriculture, the reality is more complex. Ireland imports two-thirds of its animal feed requirements and is highly reliant on imported soy and maize, of which we import around four million tons a year.

This dependence is likely to increase, as more and more tillage land is being converted to grass to feed a rapidly expanding dairy herd. In 2019, Ireland imported over a third of a million tons of maize from Brazil alone. How much of this is from recently deforested land? Stricter EU rules may cut off such sources of cheap livestock fodder in the future.

The impact of eight billion humans on the biosphere is by itself enormous, before adding the effect of 80 to 100 billion livestock reared for human use globally. Around 96 per cent of the Earth’s mammalian biomass is now either human or livestock, while 70 per cent of the world’s birds are poultry. Wild nature and the creatures that depend on it have been largely eradicated, with most of this upheaval occurring in just the last 50 years.

A brutal reckoning is fast approaching. A senior official from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warned at the recent COP27 conference that unless drastic action is taken on climate change, global food production would drop by 30 per cent by 2050. This would plunge billions into starvation, and trigger political and economic chaos across the world.

A report published earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that in addition to reducing carbon emissions, “a transition towards more plant-based consumption and reduced consumption of animal-based foods, particularly from ruminant animals, could reduce pressure on forests and land used for feed, support the preservation of biodiversity and planetary health and help prevent malnutrition”.

The global footprint of humanity is today around one-and-a-half times greater than the Earth’s total capacity to provide or replenish. As a result, six of the nine planetary boundaries critical for a stable global ecosystem have already been breached.

As a species, our evolutionary apex is also on a precipice. We must collectively agree to step back from the abyss by voluntarily easing the pressures being placed on the biosphere, through reining in our consumption and allowing natural systems such as forests and the oceans to begin to recover.

Failing that, nature will impose a harsh new equilibrium, one wholly incompatible with the flourishing of humanity.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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