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Environment: Deforestation and climate change

Sep 6, 2012, 10:33 AM | Article By: Abdou Rahman Sallah

Hello and a warm welcome to another edition of Environment, your weekly column aimed at bringing environmental issues into the limelight.

In today’s edition we examine the issue of deforestation and its impact on global warming and climate change.

Forests and climate change are intrinsically linked. Research shows that the loss of forests is a major factor in the global growth of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide. These emissions are a major cause of global warming.

Trees capture carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Some carbon is also released, but the majority is stored in the trees. Trees therefore have a crucial role in regulating the carbon content in the atmosphere. However, when the trees are cut down and burned or otherwise decompose, the carbon is released.

Deforestation and forest degradation therefore pose major threats to the world’s ecosystem by reducing global carbon storage capacity.

What is a forest?

The Kyoto Protocol broadly defines a forest as having a minimum area of 0.05 hectares with tree crown cover of more than 10 %. The trees should have the potential to reach a minimum height of 2 meters at maturity.

World forest cover

It is estimated that there are 3.9bn hectares of forests across the globe. This is about 30% of the world’s land surface. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Association of the United States (FAO), between 2000 and 2010 approximately 13m hectares of forests were lost.

Trees are re-planted every year, but not quickly enough to off-set what is being cut down. The FAO estimates that the annual net loss of forests is 8m hectares.

Types of forests

Forests can be divided into different classifications. These depend on factors such as age, soil, tree density and local geology.

The main types of forest are tropical; sub tropical; plantation; boreal; temperate; seasonal or monsoon.


Deforestation refers to the loss or destruction of naturally occurring forests, primarily due to human activities. This is due to activities such as logging, cutting trees for fuel, slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing land for livestock grazing, mining operations, oil extraction, dam building, and urban sprawl or other types of development.

Forest degradation

Forest degradation means any negative changes in a forest that damage its productivity. This happens any time a forest is made worse by overexploitation, logging, air pollution, fires, insects and vegetation diseases, firewood scavenging, animal foraging, pasturing, industrialization and urbanization.

Greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases are parts of the earth’s atmosphere which absorb and emit radiation. The main greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and ozone.

In addition to these natural gases, there are a number of entirely man-made greenhouse gases such as hydro fluorocarbons.

Greenhouse gases are a problem because they cause the ‘greenhouse effect’. This is when the gases absorb radiation and emit it in all directions, including towards the earth’s surface. Too many greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere therefore contribute to global warming.

Impact of deforestation and degradation

Some studies have shown that deforestation and forest degradation accounts for 20-25% of greenhouse gas emissions. It therefore has a major impact on global warming and climate change. It can also impact food production, increase poverty, destroy wildlife habitats, disturb the water cycle and affect the water table.

Climate change and human vulnerability

Humans are highly vulnerable to climate change. Even seemingly small changes to the world’s temperature can dramatically impact food production and food security. Natural disasters caused by climate change can decimate the environment and destroy lives and livelihoods.

Climate change can therefore result in the loss of human life and physical structures and can contribute to the creation of poverty traps by contributing to poor health and low quality of life.

It is an unfortunate reality that climate change is likely to disproportionately affect developing countries.

In a 2008 study, the World Bank states that the solution to climate change will require “strong international cooperation” which will include development assistance.

However, the authors of the report also emphasis that support should go beyond this to include “labor and migration flows; easy remittances; trade policies and well-functioning international markets for food; financial markets and insurance systems; disaster risk insurance and contingency disaster financing; peace keeping; and research in new technologies for exposed sectors.”

The Point concurs with this approach. In order to deal with the climate change challenges lying ahead, we need to use adaptation, mitigation and resilience as a coping mechanism.

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