Global deforestation slows

Rhett A. Butler,
March 25, 2010

Global forest loss has diminished since the 1990s but still remains "alarmingly high", according to a preliminary version of a new assessment from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The report, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 (FRA 2010), shows that global forest loss slowed to around 13 million hectares per year during the 2000s, down from about 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s [NOTE]. It finds that net deforestation declined from about 8.3 million hectares per year in the 1990s to about 5.2 million hectares per year in the 2000s, a result of large-scale reforestation and afforestation projects, as well as natural forest recovery in some countries and slowing deforestation in the Amazon.

Nevertheless, loss of primary forests remained high at around 4 million hectares per year during the 2000s. Primary, or old-growth, forests today account for only 36 percent of global forest cover (1.35 billion hectares), while secondary and naturally regenerating forests make up 57 percent (2.15 billion hectares). The balance — 9 percent or 264 million hectares — consists of planted forests, including industrial plantations.

Net change in forest areas by country, 2005-2010 (hectares per year)
Net change in forest areas by country, 2005-2010 (hectares per year). Image courtesy of FAO.

The ongoing loss of primary forests is significant because they store more carbon and house more biodiversity than planted and regenerating forests.

FRA 2010 says that forest loss was highest in Brazil, Indonesia, and Australia, each of which lost more than 2.5 million hectares between 2005 and 2010. Myanmar (Burma), Bolivia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Congo, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe lost more than 1.2 million hectares during the period.

Trends in forest area, 1990-2010 (million hectares)
Trends in forest area, 1990-2010 (million hectares). Image courtesy of FAO.
China saw the biggest gains in forest cover, a product of an ambitious reforestation and afforestation initiative. Primary forests in the country however continue to be diminished for plantation development, particularly in the southern China. The United States also gained net forest cover, while experiencing primary forest loss.

FRA 2010 estimates that global forest cover change between 2005 and 2010 resulted in annual loss of roughly 500 million tons in carbon stock. Overall the world's forests store 289 gigatons (billion metric tons) of carbon, or about 37 years of annual CO2 emissions at 2006 levels.

Designated functions of the world's forests, 2010
Designated functions of the world's forests, 2010. Image courtesy of FAO.
The assessment finds that 12 percent (460 million hectares) of the world's forests are designated for biodiversity conservation, an increase of 95 million hectares since 1990. Legally established protected areas — national parks, game reserves, wilderness areas and other protected areas — cover 13 percent of the world's forests. 30 percent of the world's forests are used primarily for production and about 10 million people are employed in forest management (including logging) and conservation, although a much larger number depend on forests for their livelihoods. Globally, governments spend more on forestry than they collect in revenue, indicating that the sector is heavily subsidized, according to the report.

Forest ownership patterns, 2005

Management rights in public forests, 2005. Images courtesy of FAO.

FRA 2010 estimates that 80 percent of forests are publicly owned, but ownership and management by communities, individuals, and corporations is increasing. Community-managed forests are most widespread in South America, while corporate management dominates in Oceania, Europe, and Asia.

The assessment reports that some 35 million hectares of forest are damaged by pests annually, primarily in the temperate and boreal zone. Roughly 1 percent or 38 million hectares was reported as being affected by fire each year, although FAO warns that forest fires are "severely underreported."

The final version of FRA 2010 with country-by-country figures will be published in October and a new global forest map is expected by the end of the year.

FAO says that a collaborative global remote sensing survey will greatly improve its assessments by late 2011. The current assessment is based mostly on self-reporting by countries.

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Rhett A. Butler, (March 25, 2010).

Global deforestation slows.