Deforestation is one of the largest contributors to global warming, climate change and the extinction of endangered species. The conversion of ancient rainforests into plantations for commodities, including palm plantations, is the driving factor behind deforestation.
Global tree cover loss reached a record 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres) in 2016 and it continued at the same pace through 2017. Much of the loss is happening in tropical rainforests, which are hotspots for biodiversity and endangered species. The annual loss now is an area about the size of New Zealand. Forest fires contributed to the recent spike. Deforestation due to agriculture, logging, and mining continue to drive global tree cover loss.
Deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses, including plantations. Tropical forests are annually burned down and replaced by palm tree plantations in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil, which is derived from the dates grown on palm trees.
Palm oil is used in thousands of products, including biofuel, food and cosmetics. Even those Girl Scout cookies contain palm oil. EU countries consume about 12 percent of Malaysian palm oil exports, and a portion of this is used as a substitute for crude oil in the production of biofuel.
To help combat deforestation, Norway has banned biofuels made from palm oil and it encourages other nations to follow its example. The new regulation will take effect in 2020. The decision is supposedly more comprehensive in its attempt to cover the entire fuel market. The decision also called for the government “to formulate a comprehensive proposal for policies and taxes in the biofuels policy in order to exclude biofuels with high deforestation risk.” Starting in 2020, the government will impose taxes and policies to exclude biofuels linked to deforestation. While the Norwegian market accounts for less than one percent of the total palm oil exports, it sets an example towards market-based policies to reduce deforestation. The European Union also will ban the use of palm oil in motor fuels in 2021.
“The Norwegian parliament’s decision sets an important example to other countries and demonstrates the need for a serious reform of the world’s palm oil industry,” said Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway.
Crop-based biofuels are facing mounting criticism in Europe with opponents claiming some crops that are grown on plantations cause deforestation. At the same time, Europe remains the leading market for sustainable palm oil and environmental and sustainability issues continue to be a topic of debate among consumers and policymakers. People are looking for greater levels of transparency, commitment and sustainability, which has prompted many key players to step up their sustainability commitments and pledge to create a deforestation-free industry.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is working towards making sustainable palm oil the norm through a process of market transformation and has a goal to reach 100 percent certified Sustainable Palm Oil in Europe by 2020. This target is echoed in national industry initiatives and signatories to the Amsterdam Declarations governments such as the UK, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands.
Palm oil isn’t going away. The rapid expansion of palm plantations comes at the expense of tropical ecosystems, native populations, land degradation and carbon emissions, argue environmentalists and campaigners. The debate is leading to more global consumers making ethical choices about products containing palm oil.
In September, Nestlé stepped up its no-deforestation commitment by becoming the first food company to use a high-tech satellite-based service to monitor its palm oil supply chains. In a bid to distance itself from the controversy associated with deforestation and hit its 2020 no-deforestation targets, Nestlé implemented Starling, a global verification system using cutting-edge technology combining high-resolution radar and optical satellite imagery to provide constant unbiased monitoring of land cover changes and forest cover disturbances.
This action came after the Swiss food giant being suspended from the RSPO in June for breaching its code of conduct. At the time, Nestlé said it “is not conducive to achieving the levels of industry transparency and transformation the sector so urgently needs” and pointed out that although the company shares RSPO’s ambition for improving the social and environmental performance of the palm oil sector, “our approaches differ.”
The following month, the trade organization reinstated Nestlé’s membership, after the company submitted its action plan to achieve 100 percent RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil.
Last June, a report examining palm oil said its production is a disaster for tropical rainforests and trashing the habitats of orangutans and tigers – but alternatives like soy, corn and rapeseed could be even worse because these crops are much more land-hungry. The report “Oil palm and biodiversity” is an in-depth analysis by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Oil Palm Task Force, which delves into the many challenges of palm oil production in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Common methods of deforestation are burning trees and clear cutting. These tactics leave the land completely barren and are controversial practices.
Deforestation and Climate Change
Deforestation is considered to be one of the contributing factors to global warming and climate change. The leading problem caused by deforestation is the impact on the global carbon cycle.
The deforestation of trees not only lessens the amount of carbon stored, it also releases carbon dioxide into the air. According to the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment, deforestation releases nearly a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year, though the numbers are not as high as the ones recorded in the previous decade. Deforestation is the second largest anthropogenic (human-caused) source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (after fossil fuel combustion), ranging between 6 percent and 17 percent, according to a study published in 2009 in Nature.
Carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas that is affected by deforestation. Water vapor is also considered a greenhouse gas. “The impact of deforestation on the exchange of water vapor and carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the terrestrial land surface is the biggest concern with regard to the climate system,” said Daley. Changes in their atmospheric concentration will have a direct effect on climate.
Deforestation has decreased global vapor flows from land by four percent, according to an article published by the journal National Academy of Sciences. Even this slight change in vapor flows can disrupt natural weather patterns and change current climate models.
Forests are complex ecosystems that affect almost every species on the planet. When they are degraded, it can set off a devastating chain of events both locally and around the world.
Loss of species: Seventy percent of the world’s plants and animals live in forests and are losing their habitats to deforestation, according to National Geographic. Loss of habitat can lead to species extinction. It also has negative consequences for medicinal research and local populations that rely on the animals and plants in the forests for hunting and medicine.
Water cycle: Trees are important to the water cycle. They absorb rain fall and produce water vapor that is released into the atmosphere. Trees also lessen the pollution in water, according to the North Carolina State University, by stopping polluted runoff. In the Amazon, more than half the water in the ecosystem is held within the plants, according to the National Geographic Society.
Soil erosion: Tree roots anchor the soil. Without trees, the soil is free to wash or blow away, which can lead to vegetation growth problems. The WWF states that scientists estimate that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost to deforestation since 1960. After a clear cutting, cash crops like coffee, soy and palm oil are planted. Planting these types of trees can cause further soil erosion because their roots cannot hold onto the soil. “The situation in Haiti compared to the Dominican Republic is a great example of the important role forests play in the water cycle,” Daley said. Both countries share the same island, but Haiti has much less forest cover than the Dominican Republic. As a result, Haiti has endured more extreme soil erosion, flooding and landslide issues.
Reforestation Not A Silver Bullet
Many believe that to counter deforestation, people simply need to plant more trees. Though a massive replanting effort would help to alleviate the problems deforestation caused, it would not solve them all. Reforestation would facilitate:
Reforestation won’t completely fix the damage, though. Forests cannot sequester all of the carbon dioxide humans are emitting to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and a reduction in fossil fuel emissions. It is still necessary to avoid buildup in the atmosphere. Reforestation will not help with extinction due to deforestation, either. “Unfortunately, we have already diminished the population of many species to such an extreme that they might not recover, even with a massive reforestation effort,” Daley told Live Science.
In addition to reforestation, some other tactics are being taken to counteract or slow deforestation. Some of them include shifting the human population to a plant-based diet. This would lower the need for land to be cleared for raising livestock. Global Forest Watch has also initiated a project to counteract deforestation through awareness. The organization uses satellite technology, open data and crowdsourcing to detect and alert others of deforestation. Their online community encourages stakeholders to share their personal experiences and the negative effects of deforestation.
Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, carbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management and land use are critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.