Forests, a vital component of life on Earth, cover approximately 31% of our planet’s land area. However, more than 75% of the planet’s surface has been modified and degraded by human activities such as deforestation. Destroying forests alters weather patterns, destroys habitats and the livelihoods in rural communities, compromising food security and causing irreversible damage to entire ecosystems. So how does deforestation affect the environment and the threats it poses to living species?
To answer the question of how does deforestation affect the environment, it is important to look at the reasons why humans need forests in the first place. Deforestation is the purposeful cleaning of forest land for other uses. Among the main reasons for this damaging practice are agricultural expansion and cattle breeding as well as to obtain raw materials such as palm oil, a key ingredient in cosmetics and food products widely used around the world, and timber used for fuel, manufacturing, and infrastructure development. Studies show that 15,3 billion trees are chopped down every year and over the past 12,000 years, nearly 50% of the world’s trees have been purposefully cleared by humans. This practice threatens our environment, from altering the climate and various ecosystems to compromising the existence of millions of humans and animals.
The Effects of Deforestation on Climate Change
The scientific consensus on deforestation is that it intensifies climate change at a dramatic rate. The Global Forest Watch made it clear: protecting tropical rainforests is essential for achieving the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. Trees are known for their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Healthy forests act as extremely valuable carbon sinks, with the Amazon rainforest being one of the world’s most important ones. However, deforestation is turning these sinks into huge net emitters, something that can have huge implications for slowing the pace of climate change and contributing to a steep rise in global temperatures. The current rate of rainforest-loss generated emissions is nearly 25% higher than those generated in the European Union and just slightly below US levels. Deforestation also increases the risk of uncontrollable wildfires because of humans burning vegetation. This, in turn, contributes to destroying forests, intensifying deforestation even more.
Figure 1: Tropical primary forest loss between 2002 and 2020. Image by Global Forest Watch
The Effects of Deforestation on Soil Pollution and the Water Cycle
In addition to their role as carbon sinks, forests are a crucial component of the water cycle and have the all important function of preventing desertification. Cutting down trees can disrupt the cycle by decreasing precipitation and subsequently affecting the river flow and water volume. In the case of the Amazon rainforest, research shows that at least 80% of its trees would be needed in order to keep the hydrological cycle going. With nearly 17% of the forest lost already, the Amazon is currently at its tipping point. Statistics show that deforestation in the tropics reduces precipitation over the Amazon by around 10%, or 138 millimeter, every year. In the South Asian Monsoon region, the reduction in rainfall is even higher, with around 18% less rain recorded in India in a single year.
Aside from their contribution to the water flow, trees help the land retain water and sustain forest life by supplying the soil with rich nutrients. Deforestation deprives the land of its cover, leaving the soil exposed to wind and rain. This makes soil vulnerable to being washed away, and prone to erosion. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as much as half of the world’s topsoil has been lost as a consequence of the nearly 4 million square miles of forest that have been lost since the beginning of the 20th century.
The Effects of Deforestation on Humans
In answering the question of how does deforestation affect the environment, you may discover that in fact, it also has a direct impact on the human population. With the loss of trees and entire forests, homelands are also being destroyed in the process. Indigenous communities who live in forests and depend on them to sustain their life bear the brunt of impacts from deforestation. As their houses are destroyed and resources compromised, these tribes are forced to migrate elsewhere and find other ways to sustain themselves. The Amazon rainforest is home to over one million Indigenous people, mostly of Indian descent, divided into more than 400 indigenous tribes. They live in settled villages by the rivers, and grow and hunt their food. These “uncontacted” tribes live by the rules of nature but are becoming increasingly vulnerable to deforestation, which has forced many of them to migrate. While some of them move into areas occupied by other tribes, straining the land’s resources, others are forced to relocate to urban settings and completely change their way of living.
Effect of Deforestation on Animals and Plants
Along with Indigenous tribes, animals are some of the biggest victims of deforestation. Forests around the world are home to more than 80% of all terrestrial animal, plant, and insect species. However, the rapid destruction of forests is contributing to a decline in biodiversity never seen before. The main effect of deforestation on animals and plants is the loss of their habitat. Many factors related to cutting down trees contribute to driving species to extinction. Through land erosion, the soil is depleted of its nutrients, a huge source of nourishment not only for animals but also for plants. Furthermore, many animal species are heavily reliant on specific plants and their fruits for food sources. When these resources are lost, animals become weaker, more vulnerable to diseases and often succumb to starvation. Another important role of trees is to regulate the temperature of forests and maintain it constant. When deforestation occurs, temperature variates more drastically from day to night and this extreme change can often prove fatal for many animal species.
The Effects of Deforestation on Food Security
One last major effect of deforestation is its impact on food security through the loss of biodiversity. While food availability for Indigenous tribes and animals that live in forests is reduced in the process of deforestation, its effects on weather patterns and soil degradation also drastically decrease agricultural productivity. Populations located in the proximity of tropical forests are mostly impacted by the worsening trend. Indeed, millions of people living in these areas depend almost entirely on agriculture and are thus extremely vulnerable to the impact of deforestation on food security, struggling to grow enough food and prevent crops from damage. It has been shown that the deforestation of the Amazon contributes to a decline in pasture productivity of about 39% as well as a drop of soy yields of nearly 25% in over half of the Amazon region and of a staggering 60% in a third of the area.
Solutions to Deforestation
Knowing how deforestation affect the environment more than one way and its catastrophic effects on the planet, it is crucial that people around the world take action to mitigate its impact. This can be done on an individual level, for example by reducing meat consumption, going paperless and recycling products as much as possible, opting for natural products that do not contain ingredients such as palm oil and supporting organisations and sustainable companies that are committed to reducing this dangerous practice. On a governmental level, the consequences of deforestation can be mitigated by introducing policies that protect natural forests and regulate mining and logging operations as well as other operations that require the destruction of tree plantations.