As our GREEN month of April comes to an end, and at a time when the state of our planet is on everyone’s mind, we finish our series with another environmental story of global significance: Deforestation.

As the world is slowly but surely being led into quarantine, our environment and our connection to our planet has never been more real. We are seeing the effects first hand of what can happen when a virus decides to take hold. Suddenly country borders stop nothing, the virus has no prejudice, no bias and has spread to every corner of the globe regardless of income, economic state, political views or living standards. More than ever, in this generation, we have potent evidence of our global connections – and climate change is no different.

While it may not have immediate, familiar effects like COVID-19, the wide spread effects of climate change will be felt by all. It’s not something we can see before us, but it’s something that will have worldwide consequences - And a key contributor to climate change is deforestation.

"Deforestation refers to the cutting, clearing, and removal of rainforest or related ecosystems into less bio-diverse ecosystems such as pasture, cropland, or plantations." (Kricher, 1997)

Deforestation is an activity we have been seeing the (dare I say it) benefits of for decades. What do I mean by that? One of the main reasons for deforestation is to produce palm oil, which can be found in a huge amount of household products and I hate to say it…. the foods we love! It can be found in shampoo, chocolate, cookies, crisps, packaged bread, lipstick, ice cream, soap, biodiesel, vegetable oil… and the list goes on.

But if we knew the effects of this deforestation, would we dismiss those products? ‘Growing the trees that produce the oil requires the levelling of native forest and the destruction of local peatlands — which doubles the harmful effect on the ecosystem. According to a report published by Zion Market Research, the global palm oil market was valued at $65.73 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $92.84 billion in 2021.’ (livescience)

Let’s delve deeper…

Deforestation often occurs when forested areas are cut and cleared to make way for agriculture or grazing. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reports that just four commodities are responsible for tropical deforestation: beef, soy, palm oil and wood products. UCS estimates that an area the size of Switzerland (14,800 square miles, or 38,300 square km) is lost to deforestation every year.

The World Bank estimates that about 3.9 million square miles (10 million square km) of forest have been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. In the past 25 years, forests shrank by 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) - an area bigger than the size of South Africa. In 2018, The Guardian reported that every second, a chunk of forest equivalent to the size of a soccer field is lost.

And deeper still...

According to a 2018 FAO report, three-quarters of the Earth’s freshwater comes from forested watersheds, and the loss of trees can affect water quality. The UN's 2018 State of the World's Forests report found that over half the global population relies on forested watersheds for their drinking water as well as water used for agriculture and industry.

Deforestation not only removes vegetation that is important for removing carbon dioxide from the air, but the act of clearing the forests also produces greenhouse gas emissions. The effects of those emissions? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change. With the main contributor being the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

To give a strong visual context to the deforestation conversation, our brilliant GIS Cartographer, Heiko put together a data visualisation exploring global deforestation activity over time. With the following colours representing key data:

  • Light grey represents forest extent before humans,

  • Lighter green represents the extent of forests in the year 2000,

  • Purple represents areas of forest that showed both loss and gain – meaning forests were cur down or burnt within the 15 years following 2000, but regrew or were raised / replanted,

  • Red represents areas of forest that were lost (for any reason) from 2000 to 2015.

What’s interesting about this data visualisation is we see a few key geographical areas showcasing interesting activity. For example, we can see that pre-2000 sees a permanent loss of forests in both India and China, but hardly anything happened to existing forests since then. This indicates that forestry is less of an economical factor in comparison to other land uses, e.g. urban areas or agriculture.

We can also see that Silviculture (Forestry) is much more active in Indonesia and Malaysia than any other rainforest regions in the world. We can also clearly see, in the Amazon and the Congo River, a heavier influence along major water ways, since resource transport is much easier there.

We can also see clearly here that trees grow much faster in warmer, tropical regions than in colder, boreal regions. That is why there appears to be stronger overlap with loss and gain data (purple) in some parts of the world. This is also true of production forests and plantations, as we see overlap in areas like Scandinavia and the southeast USA, because these areas are logged and then replanted with more timber trees. Or in Indonesia areas are cleared then often replanted with oil palm plantations.

With the state of our planet being on everyone’s mind at this time, we want to echo again that this is OUR world. One world. And it has to be a collective effort to right these wrongs, but we hope that this Lab and this detailed visualisation help spark positive change. After all, every small change makes a big difference.

Stay safe out there!


  1. https://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html

  2. Data Visualised was a combination of:  Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA with HYDE

(Klein Goldewijk et al. (2010), Klein Goldewijk et al. (2011), Hansen et al. (2013))

COP26 is coming to Scotland in 2021, follow us on socials for more topics like this! And see 'The Ultimate Guide to Help Prevent Deforestation' here.

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