Last fall, more than 140 world leaders made a pact to stop deforestation within the decade, not long after dozens of countries vowed to conserve nearly a third of their land. But while policymakers deliberated, trees continued to get chopped down.
In the tropics, where nearly all deforestation takes place, farming, logging, and wildfires destroyed more than 11.1 million hectares (27 million acres) of trees last year, an area roughly the size of Virginia, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI). More than a third of that loss was in tropical “primary” rainforests — old and unharmed groves of trees that store huge quantities of carbon, which is now likely to reenter the atmosphere where it will fuel climate change.
These losses extended to areas outside the tropics as well. In Russia, home to the largest forested area on Earth, wildfires wiped out more than 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres) of boreal, or snow, forest in 2021, roughly equivalent to the area of West Virginia, WRI’s analysis shows. (The organization typically doesn’t consider these losses “deforestation” because forests may grow back after a wildfire.)
Losing two states’ worth of forests in a single year is alarming but not unusual. Compared to 2021, the tropics lost slightly more primary forest in 2020. What’s surprising is that rampant deforestation continues, seemingly unbridled, even as companies and countries promise to save these ecosystems, which people and animals depend on. What’s more, just a few places — and a few products — are behind the bulk of this destruction.
Just one country is responsible for more than a third of all deforestation in the tropics
More than 40 percent of the primary forests that humans wiped from the tropics last year were in Brazil, according to WRI’s analysis. Most of that loss was in the Amazon, the largest rainforest on Earth.
Deforestation like this often appears in satellite imagery as large shapes cut from dark green expanses, typically near roads. The images below, taken last spring, show deforestation in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Continuing to cut down the Amazon comes at a staggering cost. It’s weakening the forest and pushing it closer to a dangerous tipping point, some scientists fear, beyond which much of it could turn into a grassy savanna — that is, an entirely different ecosystem.
“Such losses are a disaster for the climate, they’re a disaster for biodiversity, they’re a disaster for Indigenous people,” Frances Seymour, a researcher at WRI, said on a call with reporters, speaking about deforestation in Brazil. (Hundreds of Indigenous tribes live in the Amazon.)
WRI’s analysis also showed steep losses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home to the world’s second-largest rainforest. The Congo Basin is not as famous as the Amazon but is no less important, providing habitat for countless endangered animals like chimpanzees and African forest elephants and a home to more than 100 distinct ethnic groups.
But there are some glimmers of good news in the report. Once rampant, deforestation in Indonesia continues to decline thanks to strong corporate pledges and policies, according to WRI. In 2021, it dropped for the fifth straight year, the group said, falling by 25 percent compared to 2020. (However, the price of oil palm, a crop linked to deforestation in Indonesia, is currently at a 40-year high, WRI said. That could put pressure on the industry to chop down more forest for plantations.)
The greatest threat to our forests
It’s not toilet paper or hardwood floors or even palm oil. It’s beef.
Clearing trees for cattle is the leading driver of deforestation, by a long shot. It causes more than double the deforestation that’s linked to soy, oil palm, and wood products combined, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
And worldwide beef consumption is increasing. In 1990, the world ate roughly 48 billion kilograms of beef (and veal); in 2019, consumption surpassed 70 billion kilograms (154 billion pounds), according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Much of the beef-fueled deforestation is in Brazil, followed by Paraguay. Companies that raise cattle are responsible for an astonishing 80 percent of the forest loss in the Amazon, scientists estimate.
Oil palm production is a problem, too, but many of the companies that sell it have committed to preventing forest loss; those pledges are less common among corporations that buy and sell cattle and beef, according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Forest Trends.
“The disparity is alarming,” wrote the authors of the report, who mention that cattle farming causes an estimated 10 times more deforestation than oil palm.
Can the world actually stop deforestation by 2030?
Advocates have tried to before.
At a UN climate summit in 2014, dozens of governments signed a pact called the New York Declaration on Forests, which aimed to end deforestation by 2030. So far, it hasn’t done much.
Last year, a much larger group of global leaders made a similar pledge at the big climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Will this time be different?
“We have had many declarations before and nothing has changed,” Kimaren ole Riamit, an Indigenous leader in Kenya, told Vox last year. “There’s very little to inspire us.”
But some forest scientists and advocates are still hopeful. Last year’s pledge involves a large number of economic powerhouses, including China, and a lot of money. Countries and private institutions backed the commitment with more than $19 billion, which will help poorer nations restore damaged forests and prevent wildfires.
There are other positive signals, too, such as what’s happening in Indonesia. And more than ever, major agencies that shape environmental policies are beginning to incorporate the rights and contributions of Indigenous people and local communities. (It remains to be seen whether support for Indigenous groups extends beyond acknowledging them on paper, advocates caution.)
Getting beef consumption to decrease is a bit trickier, but there’s been some progress. Fast food joints including Burger King and TGI Fridays are now serving plant-based burgers, for example, and the alternative meat sector is beginning to receive government funding.
Ultimately, companies and politicians are responsible for ending deforestation, but that doesn’t mean individuals can’t help. Eating less beef (and other meats) is perhaps the best way to limit your impact on the planet.