Reading this? The odds are your consumer habits are causing the loss of 4 trees per year

Growing imports in developed countries (especially things like beef, coffee, or chocolate) are encouraging deforestation in tropical regions, according to a new study. Consumer behavior in rich countries is responsible for the felling of four trees per person every year, the researchers found, calling to discuss the consequences of international trade.

Image credit: Flickr /CIFOR

Forests are crucial terrestrial ecosystems, covering about a third of the global land area. They’re invaluable to wildlife and humans alike, providing invaluable ecosystem services for global communities. Tropical forests are the richest biodiverse ecosystems, harboring 50–90% of all terrestrial species.

Researchers have been sounding the alarm over the recent decline of the world’s forests, warning that deforestation is one of the biggest environmental challenges, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and changes in the hydrological cycle. To make matters even worse, over half of Earth’s remaining tropical rainforests are located in the Amazon Basin, where the deforestation rate has increased since 2013.

But according to a new study, we all have our part of the blame for this, as our habits (especially the way we consume goods) is causing deforestation on the other side of the globe.

Eating the forests

Two researchers calculated the “deforestation footprints” of individual countries, comparing their domestic deforestation to that which they “import” from abroad through their consumption of foreign-made products. It’s the first time a study links maps of global deforestation to the goods imported by each country.

“We wish people would think more about deforestation before buying and consuming forest-risk commodities,” Dr. Nguyen Hoang, the lead researcher of the study, told Carbon Brief. “Obtaining net forest gains domestically, but expanding non-domestic deforestation footprints – especially in the tropics – might do more harm than good for climate change mitigation.”

Overall, the researchers found that the main trading partners implicated in deforestation footprints include many tropical countries, such as Brazil, Madagascar, Argentina, Indonesia, and Côte d’Ivoire. These countries majorly export forest-risk commodities (for example, cattle, soybeans, coffee, cocoa, palm oil, and timber) to the G7 countries and China.

The maps below show the cumulative spatial deforestation footprint over 15 years, from 2001 to 2015, for China (a), Brazil (b), Germany (c), Singapore (d), Japan (e), and the US. The shaded areas illustrate where the deforestation footprint originates in each country and the scale of the forest loss it drives. The maps were done with forest loss and a global supply chain model.

Deforestation is often on the other side of the world. Image credits: Huang and Kanemoto (2021).

While the study is global and calculates deforestation footprints for a range of countries, the authors focused on these six countries. Japan, the US, Germany, and China are the world’s largest economies, while Singapore is usually described as one of the four “Asian Tigers” due to its rapid economic growth and Brazil is home to a vast area of tropical rainforest — they’re areas of interest, for different reasons.

The US footprint is clearly distinguishable in the map from those of the countries listed above, with US consumption leading to higher deforestation in several deforestation hotspots. The US is the main importer of a wide range of commodities from tropical countries, for example, timber from Cambodia, rubber from Liberia, and soy and beef from Brazil.

The researchers also looked at each country’s per-capita deforestation levels, which were estimated by combining the maps with a global tree density map. Residents in the G7 countries drive an average loss of 4 trees or 58m2 of forest per year per capita through their consumption. This is half of the forest loss driven by US consumption. On the other hand, China and India registered values below 1.

Image credits: Huang and Kanemoto (2021).

They also analyzed the impacts of deforestation from different types of forests – tropical, temperate, boreal, mangroves, Mediterranean, and “other” – and found imports of tropical deforestation-related commodities are growing. Developed countries and China are “major” importers of tropical deforestation-related commodities.

Dr. Chris West, at the University of York, UK, who was not part of the research team, told The Guardian: “Consumption can have large effects overseas, given our dependence on international supply chains. While policy at government level is often focused on domestic concerns, the fact is that if we don’t also tackle this international footprint we will continue to drive devastating environmental impacts globally.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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