Deforestation and fossil fuel consumption drive climate change

Forests cover around 30% of our planet—and if you’re reading this post, you yourself might live close enough to wooded areas to take them for granted. However, as with many of our natural resources, the future of our forests is in peril. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world lost around 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forest each year between 2015 and 2020—an area roughly the size of South Korea.

This represents an ecological disaster on multiple fronts.

Data from Global Forest Watch reveals that tropical deforestation, which is pervasive in many of the world’s low- and middle-income regions, currently accounts for 8% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. To put this into perspective, imagine that tropical deforestation was represented by a country—in this imaginary scenario, it would be deemed the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter, following China and the United States.

Over 80% of the world’s population lives in a country that is in an ecological deficit—meaning that more resources are being used than the planet can renew. Forests are one major casualty of this trend, being felled for wood, to make room for grazing livestock, and more.

Deforestation, however, does more than just strip our planet of vital ecosystems and natural resources—it also contributes directly to climate change. Trees take in CO2 and release oxygen during photosynthesis, making forests one of Earth’s vital carbon “sinks”—resources that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Cutting down forests not only removes critically important carbon sinks, but actually generates carbon. This can lead to the nightmarish scenario of a forest becoming yet another source of carbon—something scientists have realized is happening to parts of the Amazon rainforest.

The main source of deforestation is agriculture to help feed our ever-growing global population. But, though deforestation has increased in order to make room for industrial agriculture, global access to food has not. The number of people suffering from food insecurity reached 720–811 million globally in 2020, a number only expected to increase as the world’s human population grows.

The causes and effects of climate change are not distributed equally

High income countries like the United States, Canada, and the countries of western Europe industrialized early and grew their economies rapidly by relying on seemingly cheap and plentiful fossil fuels. Now, emerging economies such as China and India are following this same economic growth model, and the subsequent environmental impact is staggering.

However, China and India still account for less per-capita emissions than highly developed economies. On average, each individual American, Australian, and Canadian emits close to 16 tons of CO2 each year, more than twice the average Chinese individual and over eight times more than the average Indian.

Why do economies like that of America, Australia, and Canada produce more tons of CO2 per person per year?

The culprit is consumption, as the consumption choices individuals and industries in wealthy countries are making (from food with unrenewable production and packaging practices, reliance on motored vehicles, etc.) are exponentially increasing a relatively small number of people’s impacts on the health of the planet. The effects are many, including, of course, deforestation to make room for housing and cattle grazing, as well as timber production.

Unfortunately, though a relatively small proportion of the planet’s inhabitants consume more and thus release more CO2, countries in earlier stages of economic development are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change. While these countries account for negligible amounts of CO2 emissions per person, they have become the most vulnerable to climate extremes, and are poised to suffer significantly as a result. High fertility rates (and a high unmet need for family planning) undermines their capacity to readily respond to and recover from climate impacts.

Corporate Culpability vs. Individual Responsibility

While much of the math related to CO2 emissions is done on a per person basis, it is important to understand that each individual person’s impact on the climate is still proportionally minimal, even in higher emitting economies. This is because corporations hold most of the decision-making power­­ around things like climate inclusive food production methods, for instance. The market’s oversaturation of choice and other factors limits the individual’s potential impact. Close to 70% of greenhouse emissions can be linked to 103 fossil fuel companies and 29 cement companies.   

The fact that such a small number of corporations account for the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas emissions is one of the most innately unjust facets of the climate crisis: Nearly 8 billion people are enduring climate impacts for the economic benefit of a small number of high-emitting companies.

Combating Climate Change

While some progress is being made to achieve national goals, global emissions have continued to rise. Reducing the effects of climate change will require immediate and ambitious action to decarbonize economies, halt deforestation, restore ecosystems, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Delayed action will only increase costs. So what can we do to stop the negative impacts of climate change?

We must ensure we invest in a future that values:

  • Health and Education ­— Ensure that the 218 million women in the developing world who want to prevent pregnancy but aren’t using modern contraception can plan their own families, and invest in education for girls globally.
  • Climate-Smart Food Production and Consumption – Gain more efficiencies in farming, cease further deforestation for agricultural purposes. Reduce food waste in the supply chain and encourage plant-rich diets.
  • Green Energy – Encourage global conversion to renewable energy sources, reduce reliance on oil, and push for energy efficiency across the board.
  • Forest Conservation – Tree planting and ecosystem restoration, particularly for tropic forests, to maintain biodiversity and stopping tree clearing to reduce emissions and preserve carbon sinks.

With these four anchors, we have the best chance at stabilizing the Earth’s rapidly volatile warming patterns. If you want to learn the specific paths forward and join in this work:

  1. Sign up to receive emails from Population Connection
  2. Download the full “Human Impacts on the Environment: A Focus on Climate Change” report

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