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Do rich countries import deforestation from overseas?

Many rich countries are driving deforestation in other parts of the world, but are regrowing forests domestically. 79% of exported deforestation end

Many rich countries are driving deforestation in other parts of the world, but are regrowing forests domestically. 79% of exported deforestation ended up in those countries that had stopped losing domestic forests.

How do these two measures compare? Are they causing more deforestation elsewhere than they are regenerating in forests at home?

Let’s take an example. Imagine some temperate country was responsible for the deforestation of 25,000 hectares in tropical countries but was restoring its own forests at a rate of 50,000 hectares per year. On balance, it would still have a positive impact on the size of global forests; its net contribution would be increasing forest area by 25,000 hectares.4 However, this country might still be causing more damage than this for a couple of reasons. Not all forest is equal. Tropical forests are often more productive than temperate forests, meaning they store more carbon. They are also richer sites of biodiversity. And, might place more value on preserving primary, native forests that haven’t yet been deforested over regrowing forests that have lost their previous ecosystems. Hence we should keep in mind that forest area is not the only aspect that matters – where that forest is and how rich in life it is matters too.

It would be good if there was data available that would capture these additional aspects. We manage to capture some of these differences in carbon in our related article on deforestation emissions embedded in trade. Without reliable metrics that capture all of these differences, we will have to stick with total changes in forest area for now. But we should keep these important aspects in mind when comparing forest losses and gains.

In the chart we see the comparison between the change in domestic forest area, and deforestation driven by imported goods.5 On the vertical axis we have the domestic change in forest area: this is shown only for countries where the forest area is increasing. Since there is often year-to-year variability in deforestation or reforestation rates, this is shown as the five-year average. On the x-axis we have imported deforestation. The grey line marks where the area of domestic regrowth of forests is exactly equal to imported deforestation. Countries that lie along this line would have a net-neutral impact on global forests: the area they are causing to deforestation overseas is exactly as large as the area they are regrowing at home.

Countries which lie above the grey line – such as the United States, Finland, China – restore more forest each year domestically than they import from elsewhere. For example, the US ‘imported’ 64,000 hectares of deforested land, but increased its domestic forest area by 275,000 hectares. More than four times as much. On balance, they add to the global forest stock.

Countries below the line – such as the UK, Germany and Norway – are not growing forests fast enough to offset the deforestation they’re creating elsewhere. The UK ‘imported’ 34,000 hectares of deforestation but increased its domestic forests by only 19,000 hectares. These countries might have high levels of afforestation at home, but they’re still having a net negative impact on the size of the world’s forests.