The number of destroyed hectares of forests as a result of pests, fires, droughts, and extreme weather events since 1990 (Source: FAO 2020). The world is running out of time. In less than 9 years, humanity expects to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the future does not seem to be promising. What will happen with the green lungs of the planet?

A well-known popular adage says that “no evil lasts forever” but so far no one has been able to pinpoint when disasters will cease to occur. One of these disasters is deforestation; over more than three decades, humanity has faced the steady decline of forests, the planet’s green lungs. The most worrying aspect of this loss is that there is that no light at the end of the tunnel is to be seen. According to FAO’s report, The State of the World’s Forests 2020, the planet has lost around 420 million hectares of forest since 1990.  A constant drip that is leading us to an ecological disaster.

Fires, pests, diseases, invasive species, droughts, extreme weather events, and (in-)direct human activities are all factors negatively affecting forest ecosystems. Although the report points out that the deforestation rate has decreased (if compared to the high rate registered at the beginning of this century), we are still far from the end. Today, almost 100 million hectares of forests are suffering the ravages of this planetary plague.

As for the causes, there is a broad consensus on the direct correlation between climate change and deforestation. As if it were a Goldberg Machine, the progressive crisis of global warming causes the average temperature of ecosystems to rise, which dries out vegetation and significantly increases the likelihood of fires. A chain reaction that leads our planet to a tragic end. 

Forest fires occur naturally every dry season and threaten the survival of species, lives, and ecosystems integrity. After having depleted entire forests, fires produce more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, feeding the vicious circle: according to Greenpeace data, around eight billion tons of CO2 are released annually as a result of the flames. Human action together with extreme droughts create the perfect conditions for the calcination of our green treasures. Some statistics point out human action -intentionally or not- as the main cause of 96% of forest fires. Even regions such as the Arctic are increasingly suffering from the ravages of fires.

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Agriculture, the other great enemy of forests

Fires are not the only threat to our tree population: agricultural expansion is already the main cause of deforestation. So is industrialized cattle ranching, which has become a voracious predator of forest biodiversity, as data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research suggest. Deforestation in the Amazon grew by 50% in 2019 and cattle ranching occupied 80% of the endangered areas.

Clearing forests to obtain pulpwood for paper is another pressing challenge. With 7.5 billion people consuming paper for all kinds of daily activities – from personal hygiene to work or leisure – overdependence on this material is a permanent threat to our forests. As if that were not enough, humans are not the only species endangering the planet’s tree reserves. Pests and diseases are significantly degrading vegetation too. A simple beetle, the bark beetle is responsible for the mass destruction in some forests of the United States and Canada.

All these problems show that despite the joint efforts to preserve our forests, we are far from meeting the (SDGs) related to forest biodiversity. This means that, by 2030, we will face the consequences of 40 years of uninterrupted deforestation. 

Forests are an essential element for life on Earth and their progressive destruction undoubtedly threatens the planet’s health. Besides absorbing part of the CO2 emissions we release into the atmosphere, they are home to most of Earth’s diversity. Hence, we must find effective solutions to prevent the irreversible damage of these habitats and we must do it now. 

Photography credit – Cover: Ethic Magazine and Justus Menke on Unsplash