Deforestation is the process by which people are cutting down forests to create land for activities like agriculture, logging, or burning fossil fuels1. Deforestation is playing a detrimental role in climate change and global warming by having an effect on the global carbon cycle. To understand how and why this is happening, we must first understand what the carbon cycle is and how forests contribute to it.
What is the carbon cycle?
Carbon is an essential element for life on Earth2. The carbon cycle describes the way in which carbon flows between different reservoirs on Earth. These include trees, soils, rocks, oceans, animals and the atmosphere3. Essentially, it is the process in which carbon travels from the atmosphere into organisms and the Earth and then back into the atmosphere again4. Parts of the cycle store carbon for different lengths of time, and there are many processes that move carbon in and out of the stores5.
What role do forests play?
Plants exchange carbon with the atmosphere every day as they make and use carbohydrates for energy5. Therefore, trees take up carbon dioxide from the atmopshere to make their own food and grow6. Finally, this carbon will only return into the atmosphere when the tree dies and decays or is burnt during deforestation3. Therefore, trees and forests can balance the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by using it up or storing it within their structure.
How does deforestation link to the carbon cycle?
When forests are cleared by deforestation, less and less trees are available to contribute to the carbon cycle. When we cut down the trees, we remove a dense growth of plants that had carbon stored in the wood, stems, and leaves – known as biomass7. By clearing a forest, we wipe out plants that would otherwise absorb carbon out of the atmosphere as they grow7. We tend to replace these carbon-rich plants and trees with crops or pasture, which store less carbon7.
This means an excess amount of carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years7. This acts as a blanket to the earth, trapping heat and resulting in increasingly high temperatures. This is particularly important today because humans are pumping carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. If there is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this accelerates global warming and contributes to global climate change8.
What should we be doing better?
The carbon cycle is vital for life on Earth. In other words, it is definitely important that we help maintain a carbon balance to allow our planet to remain hospitable for life2. This can be done partially by planting more trees to absorb the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere9 as well as using other methods of decreasing CO2 emissions. By doing so, we can lock the carbon away within the tree structure and keep it out of the atmosphere. Hence, planting trees can be a part of the global measures to combat climate change9.
- Deforestation and Forest Degradation | Threats | WWF (2020). Available at: https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/deforestation-and-forest-degradation#causes.
- Society, N. (2019) The Carbon Cycle, National Geographic Society. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/carbon-cycle/.
- Wigley, T. and Schimel, D., (2000). The Carbon Cycle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- What is the carbon cycle? (2020). Available at: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/carbon-cycle.html.
- Loria, L., (2018). The Carbon Cycle. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing.
- Govind, A. and Kumari, J., (2014). Understanding the Terrestrial Carbon Cycle: An Ecohydrological Perspective. International Journal of Ecology, 2014, pp.1-18.
- Riebeek, Holli (2011). “The Carbon Cycle“. Earth Observatory. NASA. Available at: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle.
- Casper, J., (2010). Greenhouse Gases. New York: Facts on File, Infobase Publishing.
- Carrington, D. (2019) Tree planting ‘has mind-blowing potential’ to tackle climate crisis, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/04/planting-billions-trees-best-tackle-climate-crisis-scientists-canopy-emissions.