The Environmental Effects of Deforestation

The environmental effects of deforestation are as extensive as they are devastating. Cutting down trees is one of the worst things we can do for our planet. In fact, over 1.6 billion people and innumerable plants and animals depend on forests.1 Yet, we continue to raze 10 million hectares of woodland every year.2 

We have now destroyed one-third of global forests. Alarmingly, that is an area twice the size of the United States.3 Forests now cover just 31 per cent of the global land area.4 So, what are the environmental effects of this loss?

Deforestation and climate change

The negative environmental effects of deforestation affect our entire planet. Trees are an essential part of the fight against global warming. Avoiding “catastrophic climate change” requires rapid decarbonisation and improved ecosystem stewardship.5 The latter means protecting and enhancing the world’s existing forests. 

Environmental effects of deforestation on CO2

Forests act as carbon sinks. Trees absorb and store large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2). In doing so, they pull it directly from the air and can sequester it for centuries.6 CO2 in the atmosphere is the most important long-lived contributor to global warming.7 By keeping the greenhouse gas locked away, trees reduce global warming.   

The act of deforestation prevents forests from absorbing CO2. Furthermore, it also produces CO2 emissions. Cutting trees down, burning them, or leaving them to decompose releases the carbon they have stored.8 Deforestation is subsequently responsible for 10 per cent of annual emissions.9 We cannot hope to prevent climate change whilst we continue to ravage our remaining forests.

Image of deforestation

Deforestation and the soil

Deforestation is also damaging the Earth’s soil. Topsoil is crucial for all life, including humanity. 95 per cent of the world’s food grows in the uppermost layer of soil.10 It is where the nutrients needed to regenerate plant life are found.11 Without it, an area becomes arid and can even turn to desert.12 Cutting down trees is a direct cause of topsoil erosion. Consequently, half of the world’s topsoil has been lost since the Industrial Revolution.13

Trees protect topsoil by preventing loose soil from being blown away by the wind. Also, their foliage protects it from heavy rainfall. Water that reaches the soil around a tree drains more easily thanks to the tree’s roots. These same roots hold the soil in place.14 Chopping trees down removes this protection. Heavy trucks used by logging companies also compact the remaining soil, inhibiting future plant growth.15

The current annual cost of topsoil erosion to global GDP is about USD $8 billion.16 But, if we continue to clear vegetation and expose the precious soil, this figure is likely to increase. The damage it causes to the natural world is hard to quantify. It could threaten all land-based life on Earth.

Conclusion: Environmental effects of deforestation

There are many other environmental effects of deforestation. For instance, it pollutes water supplies, endangers countless species of plants and animals, and disrupts rainfall patterns.17 With so many reasons to leave existing trees standing and plant more wherever possible, it seems farcical that deforestation continues.

We need to stop destroying our natural world before we cause irreversible and calamitous damage to our environment, climate and planet.

Sources

  1. UN Forests (2011). Forests for People Forests and People: A Historical Relationship. [online] . Available at: https://www.un.org/esa/forests/wp-content/uploads/bsk-pdf-manager/83_FACT_SHEET_FORESTSANDPEOPLE.PDF.
  2. fao.org (2018). SOFO 2018 – The State of the World’s Forests 2018. [online] www.fao.org. Available at: http://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/.
  3. Our World in Data. (2021). The world has lost one-third of its forest, but an end of deforestation is possible. [online] Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/world-lost-one-third-forests.
  4. fao.org (2018). SOFO 2018 – The State of the World’s Forests 2018. [online] www.fao.org. Available at: http://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/.
  5. Goldstein, A., Turner, W.R., Spawn, S.A., Anderson-Teixeira, K.J., Cook-Patton, S., Fargione, J., Gibbs, H.K., Griscom, B., Hewson, J.H., Howard, J.F., Ledezma, J.C., Page, S., Koh, L.P., Rockström, J., Sanderman, J. and Hole, D.G. (2020). Protecting irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems. Nature Climate Change, 10(4), pp.287–295.
  6. Environment. (2019). How to erase 100 years of carbon emissions? Plant trees. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-to-erase-100-years-carbon-emissions-plant-trees.
  7. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  8. Media, W.S. (n.d.). Climate Change – Deforestation. [online] Climate and Weather. Available at: https://www.climateandweather.net/global-warming/deforestation/.
  9. Rainforest Alliance (2018). What is the Relationship Between Deforestation And Climate Change? [online] Rainforest Alliance. Available at: https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/relationship-between-deforestation-climate-change.
  10. Cosier, S. (2019). The world needs topsoil to grow 95% of its food – but it’s rapidly disappearing. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/30/topsoil-farming-agriculture-food-toxic-america.
  11. World Wildlife Fund (2000). Soil Erosion and Degradation | Threats | WWF. [online] World Wildlife Fund. Available at: https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/soil-erosion-and-degradation.
  12. Sciencing. (2017). Soil Erosion Due to Rainforest Deforestation. [online] Available at: https://sciencing.com/soil-erosion-due-rainforest-deforestation-23042.html.
  13. sdgresources.relx.com. (2020). World Soil Day 2020 | Sustainable Development Goals – Resource Centre. [online] Available at: https://sdgresources.relx.com/special-issues/world-soil-day-2020.
  14. Granite Seed and Erosion Control. (2019). How Do Trees Stop Erosion? | Granite Seed. [online] Available at: https://graniteseed.com/blog/how-do-trees-stop-erosion/.
  15. Sciencing. (2017). Soil Erosion Due to Rainforest Deforestation. [online] Available at: https://sciencing.com/soil-erosion-due-rainforest-deforestation-23042.html.
  16. Sartori, M., Philippidis, G., Ferrari, E., Borrelli, P., Lugato, E., Montanarella, L. and Panagos, P. (2019). A linkage between the biophysical and the economic: Assessing the global market impacts of soil erosion. Land Use Policy, 86, pp.299–312.
  17. Nature4Climate. (n.d.). Benefits. [online] Available at: https://nature4climate.org/science/benefits/.