Deforestation: definition, facts, causes and consequences

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Deforestation is one of the main causes of biodiversity loss and climate change across the world and is one of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century. Forests are essential for life on the planet. In this article, we look at why is deforestation happening, what we can do to protect our forests and how we can achieve the goal of zero deforestation.

Definition: What is deforestation?

The deforestation definition, put in its simplest form, is the reduction in forest areas across the world. It is caused by both natural and human activities, although it is undeniably accelerated by humans via actions such as urbanisation, mining and agricultural farming.

Causes of deforestation

forest fire

There are some natural causes of deforestation, including:

  • Forest fires that, in addition to destroying forests and biodiversity, release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
  • Diseases that affect trees.
  • Parasites.
  • Extreme weather such as hurricanes or floods.

However, it is not surprising that human activities (agriculture, infrastructure construction, mining activities, urbanisation) are the main causes responsible for deforestation worldwide with uncontrolled felling of trees. The development of agricultural land is the main cause of deforestation. The world's population continues to grow, and humans need more and more space to provide themselves with resources to grow food.

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According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020, 420 million hectares of forest have been lost worldwide since 1990 due to deforestation. However, deforestation has decreased considerably in the last five years, with an estimate of 10 million hectares for the period 2015-2020 (that is, an area similar to the size of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined), compared to 12 million hectares in 2010-2015.

The effects of deforestation

Forests play a dual role for the planet: they are both "lungs of the Earth'' and the reserves of biodiversity. Acting as natural carbon sinks, they mitigate the negative effects of global warming by capturing and storing CO2 in the atmosphere and they serve as natural habitats for thousands of animal and plant species.

The three main consequences of deforestation are:

  • Loss of biodiversity: as forests are the natural habitat of many species, their destruction has a direct impact on the survival of global biodiversity.
  • Soil degradation: forests make soils richer in organic matter and therefore more resistant to weathering and erosion.
  • Global warming: trees absorb CO2 throughout their lives and thus mitigate the greenhouse effect.

Facts about deforestation around the world

Deforestation is a global phenomenon. Every year, millions of hectares of forests disappear to become oil palm plantations, land for livestock, soybean crops, etc.

To understand the magnitude of the deforestation issue, the Global Forest Watch website makes it possible to visualise deforestation around the world thanks to satellite images.

Palm oil deforestation: Indonesia in focus

Palm oil is the most produced vegetable oil in the world and is actually present in many products we use on a daily basis: food products, cosmetics, cleaning products, biofuels and more. Because it is inexpensive to produce, companies and producers are able to make large profits.

Deforestation in Indonesia is mainly linked to palm oil production. Indonesia is the largest exporter of palm oil. To establish plantations, Indonesia's tropical forests are cut down and burned, releasing considerable amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and destroying an entire ecosystem. The United Nations Programme predicts that almost 98% of Indonesia's forests will disappear by 2022.

Deforestation in the Amazon

The Amazon rainforest is also one of the main deforestation areas in the world. The Amazon is one of the largest forests in the world and contains very important reserves of biodiversity. It is also considered one of the lungs of the planet for its ability to store carbon and produce oxygen.

Deforestation in the region has accelerated in the last 50 years. The increase in world demand for agricultural products, as well as the development of intensive livestock farming, are the main causes of deforestation in the Amazon. According to a study published by Greenpeace in 2009, livestock is responsible for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon region, which is 14% of the world's annual deforestation.

Deforestation in the UK

While it may be easy just to think of rainforest deforestation taking place across the world, the issue is also an important one in the UK too. According to the Woodland Trust, a charity dedicated to the planting, restoration and protection of forests in the UK, in 2019, there were 800 areas of woodland across the nation under threat, mainly from development.As well as having an impact on carbon dioxide absorption, forests in the UK play a key role in creating habitats for animals, wildlife and pollinating insects, protection from flood and soil erosion, and offering shade and shelter for livestock.

Deforestation facts in the UKAccording to Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2020, the UK lost around 481kha of tree cover - a 13% decrease from 2000. Scotland was the most affected area, losing 308kha, followed by England (100kha), Wales (54kha) and Northern Ireland (19kha).

How to stop deforestation?


Reforestation is a means of offsetting some of the losses due to deforestation. However, reforestation often results in the large-scale planting of trees that are not adapted to the environment or that do not support rich biodiversity. In fact, reforestation is as much about maintaining the quantity as well as the quality of the forests. Therefore, the fight against deforestation must be carried out in parallel with reforestation to ensure the maintenance of our current forests.

Reforestation and fight against deforestation

Fighting deforestation is a global challenge, largely due to unsustainable agricultural practices that result in the degeneration of natural ecosystems. The practice of agroforestry or the implementation of forest carbon projects are two possible solutions to remedy it.

  1. Agroforestry is a farming method that integrates trees into agricultural systems. This practice preserves soils, restores ecosystems, and improves agricultural production conditions.
  2. Forest carbon projects aim to restore and preserve forests, as well as support the socio-economic development of disadvantaged communities through the planting of trees.

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Plant a tree but also consume more responsibly

  • Planting a tree means:
  • Fighting against climate change.
  • Protecting biodiversity.
  • Developing carbon sinks.

In the UK, there are a number of organisations or private companies that help conserve, protect or maintain forests, such as the Woodland Trust, the National Forest, and Trees for Cities. By opting to support one of these organistions you can do your part to reduce your carbon footprint.

Deforestation and climate change - what else can be done?

As well as supporting projects that support the planting of trees and protection of forests, there are various other measures you can take to stop deforestation and climate change. Example of theses include:

  • Eating less meat: Reducing the amount of meat would have an impact not just on deforestation as less land would be needed for industrial farming but also on global warming.
  • Avoid products that use palm oil: As consumers, we have a lot of power and can choose to stop buying foods and cosmetics that have palm oil in them. Buy from eco-friendly producers instead.
  • Use less paper and recycled products: By choosing products that use recycled paper or cardboard as packaging, you are helping lower the demand for timber.

Discover more practical guides on protecting the environment and renewable energy.