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Humans destroyed forests for thousands of years – we can become the first generation that achieves a world in which forests expand

For thousands of years humans have destroyed forests. At the end of the last great ice age, an estimated 57% of the world’s habitable land was foreste

For thousands of years humans have destroyed forests. At the end of the last great ice age, an estimated 57% of the world’s habitable land was forested.1 Since then, people in all regions of the world have burned and cut down forests. The chart shows this. The forested land area declined from 6 to 4 billion hectares. That means our ancestors destroyed one-third of the former forests – a forest area twice the size of the US was lost. 

There are two big reasons why humans have destroyed forests and continue to do so – the need for land and the need for wood:

  • We need wood for many purposes: as construction material for houses or ships, to turn it into paper, and – most importantly – as a source of energy. Burning wood is a major source of energy where there are trees but no modern energy sources available. Still today about half of extracted wood globally is used to produce energy, mostly for cooking and heating in poor households that lack alternatives.2
  • By far, the most important driver of the destruction of forests is agriculture. Humanity cuts down forests primarily to make space for fields to grow crops and pastures to raise livestock. We also cut down forests to make space for settlements or mining, but these are small in comparison to farming. 

The land use for farming did not only come at the expense of the world’s forests, but also led to the huge decline of the world’s other wild spaces, the shrub- and grasslands. The chart shows this too.

Global forest loss since ice age

In many countries forests continue to be destroyed. The series of charts shows this. In all of these countries the forest cover today is lower than three decades ago.3

Deforestation

Most of the forests that are destroyed today are in the tropics, some of the most biodiverse regions on our planet. Why is this happening?

The following chart shows what is driving the ongoing destruction of the world’s largest tropical forest: the Amazon. The expansion of agricultural land to raise cattle is the most important driver, by far.4 

I wish this was more widely understood. Land use for agriculture is the main threat to the world’s biodiversity.5

Drivers of forest loss in the brazilean amazon

Most of the destruction of tropical forests is due to consumers in the region, but about 12% of the deforestation in the tropics is driven by demand from high-income countries. Beef-eaters around the world are contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.6

This huge impact of meat consumption on deforestation is also visible in the first chart that showed the history over the last 10 millennia – 31% of the world’s habitable land is now grazing land for livestock. This is an extremely large part of the world; taken together it is as large as all of the Americas, from Alaska in the North down to Tierra del Fuego in the South.

Meat consumption is such a large driver of deforestation because it is a very inefficient way to produce food. The land use of meat production is much higher than plant-based foods. Reducing meat consumption is therefore a way to increase the agricultural output per land area. A shift away from the land-intensive production of meat, especially beef, would be a major way to make progress and end deforestation. One possible way to get there is to make clear how large the environmental impact of meat production is. Another – complementing – way is to produce meat substitutes that people prefer over beef.