WASHINGTON (September 12, 2018)– More than a quarter of global tree cover loss between 2001 and 2015 was associated with commodity-driven deforestation, not likely to be forested again. These findings come from a study released today in Science by researchers from World Resources Institute, The Sustainability Consortium, University of Arkansas, Arizona State University and University of Maryland.
“Beyond seeing where and when tree cover loss has happened, people can now use Global Forest Watch to see why loss has occurred,” said Nancy Harris, Forest Program Research Manager at World Resources Institute and coauthor of the study. The results provide deeper insight into the overall state of global forests by identifying where tree cover loss leads to a long-term reduction in forest cover, and where trees will likely regrow. “This study not only identifies where deforestation is occurring, just as importantly it tells us where forest loss is not deforestation."
The study identified five drivers most dominantly associated with gross global tree cover loss between 2001-2015:
27 percent commodity-driven deforestation
Defined as permanent conversion of forest for the expansion of commodities, such as palm oil, soy, beef, minerals, and oil and gas. These areas are not likely to be reforested.
26 percent forestry
Defined as loss within managed forests and tree plantations, which are expected to regrow after harvest.
24 percent shifting agriculture
Defined as loss, primarily in tropical regions, that is cleared and burned for short-term cultivation of subsistence crops. These forests may or may not grow back, depending on the cultivation practices.
23 percent wildfires
Defined as loss from fires, where trees are likely to regenerate gradually over time. This loss was concentrated in the northern forests of Canada and Russia.
0.6 percent urbanization
Defined as loss from urban expansion and considered permanent, this was concentrated mainly in the eastern United States.
The most concerning finding is the amount of “permanent” conversion of forest for production of commodities like palm oil, soy, beef, minerals, and oil and gas, which was most concentrated in the tropical forests of Latin America and Southeast Asia. For the first time, deforestation due to commodity production can now be quantified, a number that is particularly important for companies that have committed to zero deforestation within their production. The study results show that collectively, companies are not on track to meet these commitments, as an average of 5 million hectares of deforestation per year still comes from commodity supply chains.
“Although most changes to tree cover are temporary, such as when a forest recovered from a wildfire or when timber farms were replanted, patterns seen in the imagery showed that a significant proportion of global forests are not coming back,” said Philip Curtis, consultant for The Sustainability Consortium and the study’s lead author.
The authors of the study visually interpreted thousands of satellite images in Google Earth to identify what caused forest disturbance around the world. Using a 10 by 10-kilometer grid for the entire globe, the researchers then trained a computer model to predict whether commodity production, forestry, shifting agriculture, wildfire or urbanization determine the most likely driver of tree cover loss between 2001 and 2015.
This analysis and corresponding map provide greater precision and prioritization power for companies, policymakers and conservationists trying to slow deforestation and unsustainable tree cover loss. The Science paper is available here.