A few week ago Map Monday featured the challenges humans face in ensuring sufficient fresh water for all our “needs”, including the vital basic need for sources of clean water in developing countries. A critical component of keeping our water supply sufficient and healthy and our air clean is that oxygen engine called a tree. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the air to make wood, and release oxygen in return (OK, this is a pretty sketchy description – they take in water, too, and other stuff happens – but it will do for the barest of basics). The bottom line is that our planet needs a good supply of tree cover to filter our air and carry out its role in moderating climate change and ensuring healthy water sources.
I was reminded recently of how much imbalance there is in where the world’s trees are found when this eye-catching little image appeared in my Facebook feed.
With this image and the importance of trees to our environment in mind, let’s take a look at the state of trees around the world. Some of the links to the map sources provide fascinating additional information. [Click on any of the maps to see more detail.]
These maps show the number of trees per person (in global hectares, aka gha) for each country and how tree coverage has changed over the years. In some cases it has changed drastically. And the final map is already 8 years old; a map of 2020 would show even more losses. Keep in mind that these maps show the trees per person in each country averaged over the country. As with many previous maps, showing this data on a country-wide basis can be misleading, as we shall see. But it’s a good starting point. By the way, the tiny green dot just to the northeast of India in each map is showing the amazing tree cover in Bhutan!
And now for a more specific map showing where the trees are and where they’re not. Notice, as an example, Australia, where there are barely any trees, whereas the previous maps showed them fairly well endowed. The population of Australia is not large, especially in relation to its geographic size; taking a measure of the number of trees per person in a large area with few people gives misleading results when compared with countries with very different profiles. There are also countries with very large populations, so that even if they have lots of trees, their amount per capita is not high. Think about this and then take a second look at the 4 maps above.
Now let’s take a look at the main causes of deforestation. The map below shows the parts of the world where permanent deforestation is taking place through:
Commodity-driven deforestation – permanent land-use change for commodity agriculture – meaning these areas likely will not be forested again (for product like palm oil or beef farming on a large scale), and
Urbanization – primarily happening on the east coast of the U.S.
And deforestation that will eventually grow back, through:
Forestry – harvested for wood and wood fiber products, then replanted for new growth,
Shifting agriculture – small to medium farms that are eventually abandoned and returned to forest, and
Wildfire – forest destroyed by wildfire but eventually growing back.
Where are the ecological deficits and the ecological reserves?
There are no easy answers as to how to strike the right balance in the world. The places in red on the map above showing commodity-driven deforestation are countries that are trying to develop an economy for their populations, the kind of economies the developed world has been used to for a very long time by comparison. And to a large extent, the industrial farms being created out of these forests are producing exports for welcoming markets in the developed world, sometimes owned by western-based multinational companies. We can’t solve the challenges of losing these precious “lungs of the world” by telling people they can never have what the western world reaped from around the world for centuries. We need to find sustainable economies along with a sustainable environment for everyone.