Tropical deforestation : one more step toward global warming

In september 2017, a study lead by the University of Boston and the Woods Hole Research Center was published in Science magazine, revealing an alarming fact : tropical forests, which are the lungs of the planet, now emit more greenhouse gases than they absorb.

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During the past few decades, tropical deforestation has radically increased. Let’s take the Amazon rainforest : two third of it are located in Brazil, and between 1990 and 2005 the country lost 163 436 square miles of forest, which roughly equals the size of California (NASA). But why did such an increase in deforestation occured in the last years? We can argue that deforestation is mostly achieved for economic purposes. Indeed, « tropical forests are disappearing rapidly as humans clear the natural landscape to make room for farms and pastures, to harvest timber for construction and fuel, and to build roads and urban areas » (NASA). With the expansion of global market economies, the race for growth and increasing exports (The Economist), humans want to produce more and more : humans see economic potential in tropical forests, that is mostly why the phenomenon of deforestation has increased. According to National Geographic, « the biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture », farmers cut forests to « provide more room for planting crops » : in the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasing causes of deforestation, whereas in Indonesia the conversion of tropical forests to commercial palm tree plantations (to produce palm oil for instance) is a major cause of deforestation. Furthermore, humans are cutting trees to fuel the timber trade or in the case of the Amazon, to install mining industries. But how can the government, which is in charge of tropical forests within the country, allow deforestation to such extent ? Protecting tropical forests and the biodiversity, eventhough it increases social welfare, has an opportunity cost for the government. Indeed, instead of preserving the whole forest intact, the government could make concessions to firms : in exchange for revenue, the government allows firms to chop off some trees for instance. The thing is, when you cut off too many trees, it can be dangerous for the Earth and its inhabitants.

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Deforestation leads to many issues : extinction of plants and animals, destruction of the habitat of native people…but we are going to focus on one issue here : deforestation leads to global warming. Indeed tropical forests are known for absorbing carbon dioxyde from the atmosphere : in the Amazon, scientists estimate that trees contain more carbon than 10 years worth of human-produced greenhouse gases (NASA). Nancy Harris, a forest resource manager at the World Resources Institute, said « forests are basically the only technology we have at the moment to remove carbon from the atmosphere ». However, when humans clear forests, usually with fire, the carbon that was stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere, « enhancing the greenhouse effect and global warming » (NASA). Furthermore, once the land is cleared and has commercial activities on it, carbon emissions continue. But not only tropical forests absorb carbon dioxyde, they also have the ability to cool down the earth’s surface : up to 30% of the rain that falls in tropical forests is water that the forest has recycled into the atmosphere according to the NASA, and this evaporation of water cools down the earth’s surface ! Therefore, tropical forests must be preserved in order to prevent global warming : it is a free way to reduce carbon emissions and to limit the warming of the earth.

Although deforestation was lead in the first place in order to gain money and to benefit the economy, and it’s true that in the short run that might occur, in the long run deforestation is going to have social, environmental and economical costs. Indeed, since the effects of global warming are harmful for the planet, humans, animals and plants, it will cost money to find solutions or to respond to these effects.

So how could we make deforestation stop, or at least reduce it ? Since deforestation is mostly lead for economic purposes, we could find an economic response to it as well. Instead of governments giving concessions to firms in exchange for revenue, there is another way to benefit economically from tropical forests, without destroying the planet. Indeed, governments could develop ecotourism in these forests : it could create employment and stimulate related service-sector economies according to the NASA. At the same time, if we want to stop firms from chopping off so many trees, we could higher the costs for cutting down the trees : this way, if it’s too expensive, firms won’t chop off that many trees.


By Alissia Leclerc


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