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Notes on Progress: Growing Forests
As countries develop, deforestation drops
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Ten thousand years ago, at the end of the last ice age, forests covered 57% of Earth’s habitable land area. Trees spanned an area of over 60 million km2, which is three times the size of modern-day Russia. They ranged from the snowy conifers of the northern latitudes to the warm jungles around the equator.
Since then, humans have come to dominate how the earth’s land is used. Forests have suffered: by 1900, forest cover had shrunk to about 48% of habitable land. Today it’s fallen to about 38%, or 40 million km2. That means, over the broad sweep of human history, we’ve cut down about one-third of earth’s forests. Moreover, about half of this deforestation has occurred since 1900, during the era of global industrialization.
Forests absorb a substantial fraction of the carbon dioxide humans emit each year. And they host most of the world’s roughly 8 million species. Protecting forests is a core target in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In 2021, UNDP surveyed over a million people globally to gauge support for various climate policies. No policy had more support than conserving forests.
Some worry that ending deforestation could only be achieved at the expense of economic growth and other development goals. In fact, growth will be part of the solution to the deforestation problems we face today. As with other environmental problems, we’re beginning to see a Kuznets Curve emerge in forestry. Industrialization and agricultural expansion do initially come at the expense of forests. But as countries get richer, this trend reverses: citizens prioritize environmental conservation more, and higher productivity allows economies to grow without needing to clear more forests for land and resources.
It took me a long time to come around to this perspective. I grew up in a tiny logging town, surrounded by nature. Shocked and concerned by humanity’s complete domination of life on earth (did you know humans and livestock make up 96% of mammal biomass?), I later studied environmental economics and sustainable resource management. I did my graduate research in Panama, working in remote, forest-dependent communities, asking what their traditional practices might teach us about sustainable resource management. (The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.)
But this research also challenged me in many ways. For one: my belief that forests were doomed to devastation so long as globalization, industrialization, and population growth continued was too simplistic. In fact, when I looked at the data I was surprised to see that global forest loss had peaked in the 1980s. Net deforestation rates fell in the 1990. And they’ve fallen further each decade since. The amount of forest lost in the 2010s is almost half what was lost in the 1980s.1
There’s a problem with just looking at global data, though: It conceals significant variations across countries. The apparent improvement in forest loss rates could have resulted from a few countries planting new forests, while the great forests of the world were still being decimated. To some extent, the decline in deforestation has partly been driven by trends like this: much of the progress in lowering net forest loss rates has come from massive reforestation campaigns in China rather than much lower deforestation rates in the tropics.
However, deforestation in tropical, developing nations is also slowing. From 1990 through 2020, real progress on combating forest loss took place in most developing nations. In Brazil, where each year more forest is lost than in any other country, there has been a decline of over 60%. Progress in Indonesia was similarly promising: from over 17,000 square kilometers lost per year in the ‘90s to about 7,500 per year in the 2010s. In fact, the rate of forest loss slowed or reversed in a majority of countries that lost forest in that period.
This process of countries going from massive deforesters to net reforesters as they grow has been called the “forest transition.” One study assessed the progress of countries in the forest transition up to 2013. The study grouped countries according to their rate of forest loss and proportion of original forest cover remaining. The authors found that most of the world’s countries had already proceeded to the final stage of the forest transition: forest loss had either slowed to a rate of just 0.2% per year or less, or reserved entirely to reforestation.
The authors of that study didn't include any economic indicators in their work; they classified countries only according to how much forest they started out with and how their remaining forests were changing. To assess how countries' stage in the forest transition connects to their stage of economic development, I compared2 their categorization to a country’s real GDP per capita in 2013. I found that, in 2013, all countries with a GDP per capita over $25,000 had reached a post-transition state, with the exceptions of Australia and Equatorial Guinea.3 From this data, at least, a highly-productive economy was sufficient (though not necessary) to halt forest loss. Put another way, rich countries don’t deforest.
The prospect of a predictable forest transition is an encouraging one. It suggests that not only can we reconcile economic growth with forest conservation, but that, beyond a certain point, economic growth may enable forest conservation. We should be a little bit careful about drawing overly strong conclusions here, because even today we lack good data on forest cover change in many countries and deofrestation rates vary over time. But in countries like France, Scotland, England, and the US we do have some long-term data on forest cover that shows evidence of a significant forest recovery.
The development story helps explain the recent U-turn in forest loss trends after thousands of years of accelerating deforestation. And in the long-term, as most countries around the world continue growing their economies, it implies that we’ll eventually see a stunning re-expansion of forests around the world as agricultural productivity rises further and more of the global workforce shifts into cities.
Without slipping into complacency, we should recognize that the fight against deforestation is one we’re winning. It is worth noting that forest transitions sometimes proceed only after economic expansion has reduced a country’s forests by more than half, as in France (see chart above). We can support and accelerate this transition by adopting conservation policies, including devolving responsibility for forest management to communities like the ones I studied in Panama.
But we should also recognize that conservation policies which deny lower-income countries economic opportunities could prove counterproductive if they prevent them from moving through the forest transition. By instead boosting productivity, we can advance both environmental and development goals. And, we can ensure that our descendants will experience the earth’s more beautiful ecosystems for themselves.
Stephen Clare is a researcher and writer in London.
According to FAO data, the net amount of forest lost per year between 2010 and 2020 was about 60% what was lost during the 1990s. Figures for the 2010s aren’t directly comparable to the figures from the 1980s due to methodology changes. However, an earlier FAO report estimated that deforestation in the 1990s was 87% what it was in the 1980s. This implies that deforestation in the 2010s has fallen by about half since the 1980s.
I’ve excluded small countries with populations below 1,000,000 people, since they are more prone to skewing the results in idiosyncratic ways, as well as countries which totally lack forests.
Australia has, since the time of that analysis, turned a corner, gaining more forest area in the 2010s than any country other than China, while Equatorial Guinea’s GDP is distorted by the small country’s massive oil resources.