Behaviour change is now inextricably linked to the transition and must be part of the world’s emissions reduction strategy, and there are many different types of relevant behaviour and ways to measure the impacts. One is to look at deforestation, caused by chopping down trees to meet our consumer needs. To grasp whose behaviour has to change we need to appreciate to what extent deforestation in places like Brazil, Canada, Liberia, Vietnam etc., is happening to service customers far away in other countries. Hence the terms “imported deforestation” and “deforestation footprint”, explains Ayesha Tandon at Carbon Brief as she reviews a new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. That study estimates figures across a wide range of nations, paying special attention to China, Brazil, Germany, Singapore, Japan and the US. They illustrate the role both developed and growing nations are playing in deforestation globally. Deforestation – by reducing the amount of CO2 absorbed naturally – is a major cause of emissions remaining in our atmosphere, with up to 39% of deforestation-related emissions driven by international trade. The study finds that though global deforestation is decreasing overall, imports of tropical deforestation-related commodities are on the rise. Data reveals that almost all the deforestation caused by the UK, France, Germany and Italy is not happening at home but abroad. The global deforestation data presented here remind us how extensive international trade is. It’s also a warning that, although reforestation at home may be an easy sell to voters and therefore happen, it is poor evidence of behaviour change. Every sector undergoing transition has a stake in it.
Many developed countries are “encouraging” deforestation in poorer nations through international trade, new research shows.
Agriculture and forestry are responsible for 80% of global deforestation (pdf). This is mainly driven by demand for goods – including coffee, chocolate, cattle, soy, palm oil and timber – that are often then traded and consumed in countries around the world.
The new study – published in Nature Ecology and Evolution – calculates the “deforestation footprints” of individual countries, comparing their domestic deforestation to that which they “import” from abroad through their consumption of foreign-made products.
The UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan “imported” more than 90% of their national deforestation footprints from abroad between 2001 and 2015, the study finds, of which between 46% and 57% was from tropical forests.
“We wish people would think more about deforestation before buying and consuming forest-risk commodities,” the lead author of the study tells Carbon Brief. He warns that “obtaining net forest gains domestically, but expanding non-domestic deforestation footprints – especially in the tropics – might do more harm than good for climate change mitigation”.
Forests cover 31% of the global land surface and provide important services, such as sequestering carbon and protecting biodiversity. However, deforestation is now one of the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions on the planet. A report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that only around half of the world’s forests are still “relatively intact”.
Previous research suggests that 29-39% of deforestation-related emissions are driven by international trade. However, while forest clearance often takes place in developing nations, the demand for commodities generally comes from richer countries.
Dr Daniel Moran – a researcher from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who was not involved in the study – explains that developed countries are driving deforestation overseas through consumer choices:
“It’s easy to look at the farmers, foresters and countries where deforestation is occurring and wish they would stop. But they are responding to signals from the global market. We are buying their soy as feed for our hamburgers and salmon and their palm oil as input to our lipstick.”
The new study estimates how much deforestation countries “import” through the logging associated with the goods they receive in trade. The authors then calculate a country’s “deforestation footprint” from its “imported deforestation” plus any domestic deforestation.
The deforestation map
The maps below show the cumulative deforestation footprints of China, Brazil, Germany, Singapore, Japan and the US for 2001-15. The shading shows where each country’s deforestation footprint originates and the scale of forest loss it drives.
This map is developed using forest loss data, analysis of the drivers of deforestation and a global supply chain model. For this study, “deforestation” is defined as a grid square in which all vegetation above five metres in height has been cleared.
The study is global, and calculates deforestation footprints for a range of countries. However, the authors also focus on these six countries because Japan, the US, Germany and China are currently the world’s four largest economies. Meanwhile, Brazil is home to the world’s largest area of tropical rainforest and Singapore is classified as one of the four “Asian Tigers” due to its rapid economic growth.
Most timber products from the Atlantic forest in Brazil are used locally, the study finds, but demand for soy and beef in the US, China and countries throughout the European Union also drive Brazilian deforestation.
More than half of Earth’s remaining tropical rainforests are located in the Amazon Basin, where deforestation has “increased sharply” under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, the study notes.
The map also shows a strong US influence in Canada which, according to the study, is because the US is the primary export destination for Canada’s forest products. The US has the most clearly distinguishable footprint, the study adds, importing timber from Cambodia, rubber and related products from Liberia, edible fruits and nuts from Guatemala and soy and beef from Brazil.
China, South Korea and Japan also engage in “timber exploitation” in north Vietnam, the paper adds, while Germany poses the highest risk to forests in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana through its demand for cocoa.
The deforestation leaderboard
The plot below shows how national deforestation footprints have changed between 2001 and 2015 for the six focus countries.
The chart shows the scale of the deforestation footprints of the US (pink line) and Brazil (blue), while also highlighting how China’s (red) has increased steadily since 2001.
“Imported” deforestation vs afforestation at home
The study notes that China – along with India and many developed countries – have increased their imported deforestation while also seeing forest gains within their borders. In 2014, for example, China and India’s imported deforestation was more than six times their 2001 levels.
Moran tells Carbon Brief that these findings for India and China are “fascinating”:
“This is a potentially delicate situation – the countries have realised net afforestation at home, but their global deforestation footprint has actually grown due to outsourcing… the fact that the environmental damage is being done elsewhere makes it more difficult – both morally and logistically – to motivate political change at home.”
The authors also look at each country’s per-capita (per person) deforestation levels. The plots below show the number of trees lost (left) and the area of forest removed in metres squared (right) for 24 countries in 2015. The blue bars show domestic deforestation and red show imported (“non-domestic”) deforestation.
It is worth noting that these figures only show the absolute forest losses without compensating for forest restoration.
Residents in G7 countries drove an average loss of 3.9 trees or 58m2 of forest per capita through their consumption patterns in 2015, the results show, with the per-capita tree loss of the US in 2015 clocking in at twice that of Japan, Germany, France or the UK.
Tree loss in Singapore was almost entirely imported from south-east Asia, the study notes. Meanwhile, Brazilian deforestation was predominantly categorised as domestic – although much of it was the result of producing goods that would be exported.
To explore the impacts of deforestation from different types of forests, the authors define six forest “domains” using data from the US environmental organisation the Nature Conservancy – tropical, temperate, boreal, mangroves, mediterranean and “other”.
While global deforestation is decreasing overall, the study finds that imports of tropical deforestation-related commodities are on the rise. Most developed countries and China have become “major” importers of tropical deforestation-related commodities, while developing countries such as Brazil are “major” exporters.
Ayesha Tandon is a Science Journalist at Carbon Brief