Major economies responsible for extensive deforestation beyond their borders

March 29, 2021

Wealthy countries are responsible for deforestation elsewhere in the world. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

A new spatial mapping system of global deforestation found that a handful of countries are responsible for massive amounts of deforestation outside their borders despite domestic policies aimed at protecting their own forests.

The study, published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, found that the consumption patterns of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — members of the international Group of Seven — are driving an average loss of 3.9 trees per person every year. The areas most affected by deforestation are already vulnerable biodiversity hotspots, such as Southeast Asia, Madagascar, Liberia, Central America and the Amazon rainforest. 

"It hurts to see photos of beautiful forests in Brazil or Indonesia being destroyed," said Nguyen Tien Hoang of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature. He and his co-author, Keiichiro Kanemoto, said this kind of mapping is necessary to create better regulatory policies and science-based interventions for protecting the forests.

"Although many zero-deforestation pledges have been created and the global deforestation rate was reported to be decreasing, deforestation in the tropics is still serious, especially in the Amazon," he said. 

Previous research had been limited to nonspatial estimations of deforestation that were typically conducted on a regional scale. This study is the first to fully map the global impact of international trade on deforestation. 

Using global forest loss data between the years 2001 to 2015 and a global supply chain model, the researchers created a comprehensive view of how international trade drove changes in deforestation over those 15 years. Only forest loss associated with agriculture, forestry, urbanization and production of commodities was used in the mapping.

Nguyen and Kanemoto found that it was the export of high "forest-risk commodities" from tropical countries such as Brazil, Madagascar, Argentina, Indonesia and Côte d'Ivoire to the G-7 countries, China, and India that was exacerbating deforestation in those nations. Those commodities included cattle, soybeans, coffee, cocoa, palm oil and timber. The nations receiving those goods drive more than 90% of deforestation outside their borders.

"Global demand for deforestation-related commodities continues to increase," Nguyen said. "Current measures for forest conservation are not effective enough to reduce deforestation embodied in international trade."

Policy conversations around deforestation are often focused on what developed nations can do domestically to reduce deforestation within their borders, but the current zero-deforestation initiatives are "only partly effective due to the wide range of global deforestation and diversely traded commodities," Nguyen said. 

To maintain their net forest gains, developed nations have primarily increased deforestation elsewhere. Aside from Canada, which decreased its deforestation footprint over the 15 years, China, India and the G-7 countries have increased the deforestation footprints outside their borders. China and India specifically expanded their footprint as a consequence of increasing their import of forest-risk goods by more than six times between 2001 and 2014. 

Consumption from the G-7 countries drove an average loss of four trees per capita in 2015. In Southeast Asia, the driving economy behind deforestation is Singapore, whose imports cost five trees per capita that same year. It's important to note, however, that the location of deforestation is an important factor; for example, the environmental impact of three Amazon rainforest trees used by a Brazilian has a more severe impact on global biodiversity than 14 trees from a temperate and boreal biome lost to a Norwegian citizen.

The forest biomes most at risk are tropical rainforests, and the dependence on the commodities they provide is only increasing, according to the research. Nguyen said a greater transnational effort needs to be made to reform zero-deforestation policies and "improve supply chain transparency, public-private engagement, and financial support for the tropics." He cited a new initiative from Norway to make payments toward a $1 billion deal to cut forest emissions in Indonesia as an example of steps that can be taken.

"We would need more developed countries to open their purse," Nguyen said. "Deforestation is not a domestic problem. By showing the deforestation footprint maps and numbers of tree loss per capita to the public, we wish people would think more about deforestation before buying and consuming forest-risk commodities."

The study "Mapping the deforestation footprint of nations reveals growing threat to tropical forests," published March 29 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, was authored by Nguyen Tien Hoang, the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature; and Keiichiro Kanemoto, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature.

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