What Forest Covers Will Look Like in 40 Years


By Paul Robbins, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

Starting in around 1700, forests were harvested heavily by colonial powers. And this heavy deforestation continued on after 1850, even when it was slowing in Europe and North America. Between 1700 and 1980, tropical Africa lost 20 percent of its forest cover, as did Latin America. South Asia lost 46 percent of its forest in the same period. And China experienced a remarkable 57 percent loss of forest. But this is the past; what does the future look like?

Aerial photo of deforestation with machines in action
Over the course of 280 years, China lost over half of its forest cover. (Image: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

The Global Economy and Deforestation

Many of the regions mentioned above, especially parts of Africa and Latin America, are still losing forest today. So it’s fair to ask, at this rate, will we have forests in 40 years? Well, much of this forest-cover loss has been tied to the integration of these regions into a global economy, and that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. 

The rise in industrial activities in these countries and around the world, and the development of modern agricultural production for export markets in Europe and the United States all played a role, so the destruction of forests in poorer regions is largely driven by the acceleration of global trade and the demand for consumer goods in wealthy parts of the world.

Agricultural Production Taking Over Forest Covers

Tractor working on a farm
Expansions in farmland are directly connected to the disappearances of forests. (Image: Fotokostic/Shutterstock)

Forest-cover change, of course, isn’t the only kind of transformation that’s occurred in the modern era, although it’s sometimes the most dramatic. The amount of land dedicated to agricultural production has also increased, especially since 1700. 

For example, lands dedicated to agriculture in China have increased from 29 million hectares to 234 million hectares; a hectare is a unit of land 1,000 meters in size, about 2.5 acres. It’s a big chunk of land. This growth in cropland is very similar to the increase in South Asia and tropical Africa, so we see forests disappearing and farmland expanding.

Similar expansions in farmland can be seen all over the world. By 1950, 206 million hectares of land had been plowed and dedicated to agriculture in the United States. That’s a very large area. That’s a fourfold increase from the century before. And this expansion in farmland came not only at the expense of forest, but also at the expense of the great grasslands, the vast prairies, that once covered most or much of the middle part of America, Asia, and much of Africa.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Understanding Cultural and Human Geography. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Earth’s Net Primary Productivity

Turned under the plow, these grasslands had once supported large and fantastic biodiversity, including African and Asian elephants, and a large number of important predators, all of which are now threatened or endangered, at least in part because of this great change in agricultural production. 

It’s estimated that human beings have captured, on the whole, through their activities, around 20 percent of the Earth’s Net Primary Productivity. So what is that? That is all the photosynthesis, all the vegetative production, all the growth in the world has been turned, at least one-fifth of it, towards human activities only, and that’s a pretty radical assertion.

Human activities on the landscape have fully transformed the life of the planet, harnessed it as an engine in the service of people, and put countless species at risk as a result. Some of the most detailed and quantitatively rigorous estimates of this transformation have been presented by Geographer Vaclav Smil in his dense and very powerful book, Harvesting the Biosphere.

What Have We Taken from Nature?

Smil avoids simple catastrophic predictions, which he insists will always be wrong. But, his dense historical picture is clear, and based on many of the statistics, we are using a vast portion of the Earth’s productive capacity. And as poorer people become wealthier, they are likely to consume more stuff, to say nothing of the rate of consumption for people who are already wealthy. 

So, if we keep going at this rate of increased consumption and resources, Smil explains, we would have to double or triple the productivity of basic biomass all around the world to keep up. In other words, to catch up with our own consumption, we would have to greatly expand the production capacity of nature, of the Earth, and that’s not very likely.

Common Questions about What Forest Covers Will Look Like in 40 Years

Q: How is the destruction of forests in poorer regions tied to global trade?

The acceleration of global trade and demand for consumer goods in wealthier parts of the world drives the destruction of forest covers in poorer regions. This is tied to the rise in industrial activities and the development of modern agricultural productions for export markets in Europe and the United States.

Q: How have humans affected Earth’s Net Primary Productivity?

The Earth’s Net Primary Productivity is all the photosynthesis, vegetable production, and growth in the world. It is estimated that at least one-fifth of that amount is turned towards human activities such as land transformation and forest cover change.

Q: How does Vaclav Smil explain what we have to do given the rate of increased consumption?

According to geographer Vaclav Smil, at this rate of consumption of resources and lands transforming such as forest covers, the productivity of basic biomass all around the world has to double or triple so we can catch up with our own consumption.

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