How Does Deforestation Affect Climate Change?
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Climate change awareness is at an all-time high, with people and businesses changing their lifestyles to improve the planet. Industries aren’t the only sources of emissions, though. Deforestation affects climate change, too.
Forests contain some of our most precious resources. They are also of grave importance to biodiversity, weather patterns, and humans.
Let’s look more closely at forest sequestration, how deforestation contributes to climate change, and strategies to mitigate the impacts.
Forests and the Carbon Cycle
Global forests are critical to the carbon cycle — the continuous absorption and release of carbon dioxide (CO2). According to research, forests sequester 7.6 billion metric tons of CO2 annually — nearly 1.5 times as much as the United States generates.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says forests reduce 14% of greenhouse gases produced by the U.S. each year.
Typically, 20–70-year-old forests have the highest carbon sequestration — these are considered younger forests. However, there is typically greater CO2 storage in older, more complex forests, depending on the distance, tree condition, vegetation amount, and structure.
A complex forest will have large and small trees, live and dead trees and dense vegetation. There will also be various tree life stages at under-, mid-, and overstory canopies.
4 Ways Deforestation Affects Climate Change
Industrial pollution often comes to mind first when we think about climate change. Yet, while factories, construction, transportation, and waste management contribute to global warming, many forget other human-induced sources, such as deforestation. Here are four ways deforestation affects climate change.
1. Emits Carbon Dioxide
Whereas healthy forests sequester carbon, deforestation affects climate change by emitting CO2. Imagine how trees store CO2 inside their trunks — when they’re cut down, they release the CO2 from inside into the atmosphere. Deforestation contributes to 12–20% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Ironically, the Amazon rainforest is cleared for agriculture and livestock production — a sector responsible for 24% of global emissions. In Southeast Asia, forests contain several commodities, including palm oil for vegetable oil. These forests release swaths of CO2 and other greenhouse gases when cut down.
2. Obstructs Global Carbon Sinks
Deforestation emits about 8.1 billion metric tons of CO2 annually. We lose one of the world’s most significant carbon sequesters by cutting down forests.
Tropical forests are also just as impacted as boreal forests. A recent study found tropical forests in Africa and Amazonia have difficulty removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Researchers monitored 300,000 trees in 565 tropical forests for 30 years. Trends indicated an even steeper decline in the future, which would negatively affect efforts to mitigate climate change.
3. Harms Ecosystems and Wildlife
Obviously, cutting down forests has dire implications for biodiversity. According to American Forests, 80% of terrestrial wildlife relies on forests for survival. But did you know that wildlife conservation is beneficial for mitigating climate change?
Creatures, big and small, control carbon emissions through various processes, such as foraging for food, disturbance, and seed dispersal. Animals can reduce the time it takes to remove 500 billion tons of CO2 and meet the standards in the Paris Climate Agreement.
In the Białowieża Forest in Poland, animal seed distribution caused a 2.5% increase in the Alder buckthorn tree. Without animals like birds and squirrels, carbon uptake would decline dramatically and tree growth would be hindered.
4. Disrupts the Water Cycle
It might surprise you that deforestation disrupts more than carbon absorption. It also causes problems with the water cycle. Forests release vast amounts of vapor to better control precipitation.
Studies show deforestation in central African forests will decrease precipitation by 5–35% in the U.S. Midwest. As a result, drought could seriously affect agriculture and the global food supply.
Reducing How Deforestation Affects Climate Change
Under the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement, countries have adopted the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) framework. The plus sign is for sustainable forest management and projects to enhance carbon stocks. The framework issues money incentives for countries to up their afforestation efforts.
Sustainable forest management is a holistic approach to protecting the world’s forests, often on an international, national, regional, and local scale. Strategies must align with forests’ environmental, economic, and social benefits, ensuring future stability between resource consumption and ecosystem functioning.
As part of sustainable forest management, some address the water cycle issue by reforesting agricultural lands. The more farms converted to forests, the better chance of offsetting drought. Studies show a 7.6% increase in rainfall with this approach.
Protecting forest soils is another way to mitigate climate change. Soils can store two to three times more CO2 than the atmosphere can. Protective measures for forest peatlands where soil loss is most significant are essential.
Of course, you can do plenty on an individual level to reduce deforestation, starting with decreasing demand for tree-derived commodities. Take action for our forests in the following ways:
- Participate in tree-planting activities in your community.
- Support companies that are making strides in forest conservation.
- Donate to forest conservation organizations and initiatives.
- Purchase wood and paper goods certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and other certifying agencies.
- Only use wood and paper products as necessary, or avoid using paper altogether.
- Sign up for paperless billing, such as bank statements, monthly health care premium statements and other documents.
- Recycle, reuse and reclaim wood and paper materials.
- Support sustainable agriculture and organic farming.
- Volunteer in forest cleanup events in your community.
- Advocate for forest protection and conservation policies.
Knowledge is power. Therefore, sharing what you learn about how deforestation affects climate change and mitigation strategies is essential. When people are aware of and understand the problem, they are more likely to do something about it.
Limiting How Deforestation Affects Climate Change for a Better Future
Efforts to mitigate climate change should start with decreasing deforestation. As one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, our network of boreal and tropical forests is essential for reducing global warming for future generations. You can do your part by making changes to your resource consumption habits and standing up for the world’s forests.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.