clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The alarming decline of Earth’s forests, in 4 charts

Deforestation raged ahead again in 2022, even after scores of countries pledged to protect their forests.

A solitary tree on a burned plain.
A section of forest in the Brazilian Amazon that was burned by cattle ranchers, seen on August 16, 2020. Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
Andre Penner/AP
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

Over the last decade, dozens of companies and nearly all large countries have vowed to stop demolishing forests, a practice that destroys entire communities of wildlife and pollutes the air with enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.

A big climate conference in Glasgow, in the fall of 2021, produced the most significant pledge to date: 145 countries, including Brazil, China, and Indonesia, committed to “halt and reverse” forest loss within the decade. Never before, it seems, has the world been this dedicated to stopping deforestation.

And yet forests continue to fall.

A new analysis by the research organization World Resources Institute reveals that deforestation remained rampant in 2022. More than 4 million hectares (about 10 million acres) of forests vanished from the tropics that year in places like Brazil and Central Africa, according to the analysis, which is based on data from the University of Maryland. That’s a Switzerland-size area of forest gone, WRI said.

Alarmingly, the world lost 10 percent more tropical forest in 2022 compared to the previous year, indicating that countries are, on the whole, moving in the wrong direction. This is especially troubling considering that tropical forests are among the most important ecosystems on Earth. They help regulate weather, store vast amounts of carbon, and provide homes to the richest assemblages of wildlife on the planet.

“Since the turn of the century, we have seen a hemorrhaging of some of the world’s most important forest ecosystems, despite years of efforts to turn that trend around,” Mikaela Weisse, director of WRI’s forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, told reporters on a press call last week. “This year’s data show that we are rapidly losing one of our most effective tools for combating climate change, protecting biodiversity, and supporting the health and livelihoods of millions of people.”

The analysis did reveal a bit of good news: Once hot spots of deforestation, Indonesia and Malaysia have reined in forest loss in recent years, and that trend continued in 2022. These ecosystems are both incredibly rich in carbon and home to iconic endangered animals like orangutans and tigers.

On the whole, however, the world is still failing to arrest global deforestation, leading scientists to question how well various commitments and decades of conservation efforts work. Each year brings the same disappointing result — more forests gone — underscoring the need for solutions that extend far beyond simple pledges.

Where forests were cut down last year

Nearly all deforestation — i.e., the intentional and permanent destruction of trees — occurs in the tropics, the focus of WRI’s analysis. Countries in more temperate climates like Canada and Russia also lose a lot of trees each year (largely to wildfires) but that loss is often temporary; new trees crop up where old ones burned down.

Remarkably, just one country was responsible for more than 40 percent of all tropical deforestation last year: Brazil. It lost 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of primary forest, most of which occurred in the Amazon, the largest rainforest on Earth home to an extraordinary array of plants and animals. (“Primary forests” refers to well-preserved, old-growth forests.)

Forest fires caused a small portion of that loss in Brazil, according to WRI. But if you take fires out of the equation, Brazil had the highest level of deforestation in 2022 since 2005.

Although it has far fewer forests, the neighboring country of Bolivia also faced troubling rates of deforestation last year. The county lost nearly 0.4 million hectares (just under 1 million acres) of primary forest — the highest yearly amount on record and roughly a third more than it lost the prior year.

Halfway around the world in Africa’s Congo Basin, the planet’s other major rainforest, was yet another hot spot of destruction. Last year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the basin’s largest country, razed more than half a million hectares (1.3 million acres) of primary forest, furthering the trend of rising deforestation in an ecosystem home to rare species including chimpanzees and forest elephants.

A handful of other African countries, including Ghana, Angola, and Cameroon, stand out; destruction there seems to be ramping up quickly. Deforestation in Ghana, for example, surged by nearly 70 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to WRI.

So, what’s driving this loss?

Growing food is still by far the primary source of destruction

The main reason why people cut down forests today is to raise cattle for beef or to plant crops like soybeans, oil palm, and coffee. The reality is that it’s often easier or cheaper to clear a chunk of virgin rainforest for farmland than to use land that’s already been cleared of trees.

In the Brazilian Amazon, as much as 90 percent of all deforestation is linked to cattle ranching. Often, ranchers or companies will first cut down high-value trees and sell them as timber. Then they’ll burn or clear the remaining vegetation before planting grass and bringing in cattle.

Elsewhere, other food commodities are flattening forests. In Bolivia, for example, Mennonite communities have replaced a lot of natural forest with soybean farms. In 2019 alone, soy farms destroyed nearly 50,000 hectares of forest, according to a separate WRI analysis. (Ironically, a successful effort to eliminate soy-related deforestation in Brazil — namely, a 2006 moratorium that prohibited grain traders from buying soy grown on land that was recently forest — may have fueled a spike in soy-related forest loss in Bolivia, where there are fewer forest protections in place.)

Much of Bolivia’s forest was also burned by fires last year, WRI said. Those fires weren’t purely natural disasters; many of them were set by people to clear land and then grew out of control due, in part, to drought in the region. (Another unfortunate irony: Deforestation can make droughts worse, so destroying forests fuels a dangerous feedback cycle.)

The story is a bit different in tropical Africa, where deforestation occurs in smaller patches and is closely tied to poverty. Many people in DRC, for instance, cut down trees for wood fuel and to plant small farms to feed themselves. Industrial farming isn’t a big issue, as it is in South America and Southeast Asia, according to Paolo Omar Cerutti, a forest scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, a research group.

Yet in some other African countries, including Ghana, farms of cocoa (the plant used to make chocolate) and oil palm, mining, and cattle ranching are linked to recent destruction, even within protected areas.

Why is deforestation still so high?

For many years now, most of the countries and companies responsible for tropical deforestation have been publicly committed to protecting forests. Big meatpacking companies in Brazil, for example, agreed to only buy cattle from land without forest loss more than a decade ago; dozens of other companies have made similar pledges, including food giants like Nestle.

Meanwhile, in 2014 — well before the Glasgow climate conference — dozens of countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030, including DRC, Colombia, and other forest-rich nations. Over the years, all kinds of other efforts have emerged to end deforestation, such as an initiative called REDD+, which essentially aims to compensate poor countries for protecting their forests.

The harsh reality is that, at least so far, these efforts have hardly dented deforestation. “Globally, we are far off track and trending in the wrong direction when it comes to reducing deforestation,” Rod Taylor, global director for forests at WRI, told reporters during last week’s press call.

Forests cleared for small farms in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo, seen on September 1, 2022.
Guerchom Ndebo/AFP via Getty Images

One simple problem is that pledges are far easier to make than to act on, said Ruth DeFries, a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University.

“All these high-level commitments sound good in a public forum, but they have no teeth,” DeFries said of country-level pledges. “There’s no enforcement and very little reason for countries to have accountability.”

After pledging zero deforestation at high-profile international events, officials from a country’s environmental ministry go home, where they may face competing interests — such as from their agricultural ministry — and a general lack of political will to follow through on their promise. Changes in government leadership can also undermine those efforts.

A group of cattle on a farm within a protected area in Para state, Brazil, on October 5, 2021.
Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is perhaps no better example of this disconnect than in Brazil. In the spring of 2021, former right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro pledged to stop deforestation by 2030 while his government was actively enabling environmental destruction. During his presidency, Bolsonaro stripped enforcement measures, cut spending for science and environmental agencies, fired environmental experts, and pushed to weaken Indigenous land rights.

Part of the issue in Brazil (and throughout much of the tropics) is that the agriculture industry has a lot of political power; it can roadblock efforts to fulfill environmental pledges, even today. While Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has a track record of curtailing forest loss — and has vowed to protect the Amazon — environmental advocates warn that the country may still lack the political will for serious change, as long as Big Agriculture remains a dominant force in the country.

“We have the opportunity again of being a champion on climate, and Lula has promised to do that,” said Ana Paula Vargas, Brazil program director at Amazon Watch, an environmental advocacy group. “But how can he do it if Brazil’s economy is based in big agribusiness?”

Corporate pledges to avert deforestation often fall short, too, as good as they might sound to consumers. Companies that operate complex supply chains, such as those that sell beef or palm oil, can easily hide environmental destruction, or may even be unaware of it themselves.

Brazil, again, offers a strong example: Some companies that slaughter cows for beef say they’re monitoring their supply chains to ensure that they aren’t driving deforestation; they’ve agreed to only source cattle from suppliers without recent forest loss. Yet those same cattle may have traveled through several other farms where deforestation happened before reaching the slaughterhouses’ direct suppliers, according to Amintas Brandão Jr., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison. So in reality, those companies are implicated in environmental harm and misleading consumers.

Zooming out, what underlies many failed efforts to end the destruction of rainforests is a simple fact: People can make more money by destroying forests than protecting them, said Kemen Austin, a tropical forest expert at the Wildlife Conservation Society. That’s because the benefits they provide — storing carbon, producing oxygen, cleaning water, making homes for animals that people eat, and so on — are typically not accounted for.

Indonesia: An example of what works

This new analysis isn’t all bleak. It also shows that some strategies to fight deforestation appear to be working.

For much of the last few decades, Indonesia and Malaysia razed an extraordinarily large amount of tropical rainforest. Companies were clearing forests and replacing them with plantations of trees that produce palm oil, a now-ubiquitous ingredient found in everything from baby shampoo to ice cream.

But in the last 10 years or so, a combination of government policies, better monitoring of forest fires, and advocacy campaigns targeting palm oil companies caused deforestation to slow, as Vox previously reported. WRI’s new analysis reaffirms this trend: In 2022, forest loss in Indonesia and Malaysia remained low.

“Indonesia has reduced its primary forest loss more than any other country in recent years,” Liz Goldman, a researcher with Global Forest Watch, said on the press call.

These results are especially encouraging considering that palm oil prices spiked in the spring of 2022, which tends to raise the incentive to plant palm oil trees. That said, there’s typically a lag between rising palm oil prices and deforestation, so forest loss data for 2023 could be a better test of whether the region’s anti-deforestation policies work.

In past decades, even Brazil had remarkable success in slowing deforestation. When Lula first became president, starting in 2003, his administration ramped up forest monitoring and enforcement, and backed a number of initiatives to protect forests, DeFries said. At the time, there was more political will in Brazil to solve the problem, she said — partly because politicians and the Brazilian public didn’t want the reputation as being destroyers of the Amazon.

That changed with Bolsonaro, who empowered the agriculture industry, which in turn fueled rampant rates of deforestation.

How to end deforestation

In the face of yet another year of severe forest loss, it’s these stories from Indonesia and Brazil that give environmental advocates hope. With political will, anti-deforestation policies — such as those restricting commodities tied to forest loss — and strong corporate accountability campaigns can work.

“With political will” is of course a hefty caveat. Yet there are ways to build the necessary support, DeFries says, starting with informing the public about the crisis of deforestation and how it threatens us all, whether or not we live anywhere near the Amazon rainforest. It’s not just about cute animals losing a place to live but our very existence: Deforestation fuels climate change and directly threatens human health by giving viruses more opportunities to spill into our populations.

A brown-throated sloth hangs from a tree within a forest in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
Insights/Universal Images Group via Getty

There are a handful of other reasons to think that deforestation rates won’t be high forever.

On the policy front, the European Union recently passed a regulation that prevents companies from selling or exporting beef, coffee, and a handful of other commodities in the EU if they’re grown on land where forests were recently cleared. (One major limitation of the EU regulation is that the European market for these goods is relatively small compared to, say, Asia.)

Plus, tools to map and monitor changes in the world’s forests using satellites are improving quickly, making it easier to hold countries and companies accountable for their actions.

In the years ahead, one other major obstacle could stand in the way of progress: There will be millions more mouths to feed. Indeed, global food demand is set to increase by more than 50 percent by mid-century, according to WRI. And in the past, more food has meant more deforestation.

This challenge is solvable, too. The world can grow more food without destroying more forests, WRI has found, though doing so requires some big changes in the way our food system operates. Farms and ranches will have to become far more efficient, for example, and meat-eaters will need to consume more plant-based foods. (If you’re wondering what you can do: Experts say eating less beef is probably the single best way an individual can benefit forests.)

If there is one takeaway from all of this, it’s that a future rife with environmental destruction isn’t inevitable. The tools exist to fix the problem, said Brandão Jr., who’s from the Brazilian Amazon. “There is no need for more deforestation,” he said.