U.N. Report: Human Impacts Pushing Forests to the Brink

Clearcut and road in the boreal forest

For decades, the international community has taken our forests for granted, ignoring warnings that the scale of our impacts on them were unsustainable. Echoing industry assurances that the forests were plentiful or would grow back, governments have allowed corporations to recklessly harvest these vital ecosystems for forest products, clear them for cattle and agriculture, fragment them with roads, and replace them with sprawling suburbs. Now, we’re in the eleventh hour of a biodiversity crisis every bit as pressing as the threat we face from climate change. We have pushed our forests right to the brink, and, according to a new U.N. report, their fate now rests on the actions today’s generations take in just the next few years.  

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) Global Assessment on Biodiversity released yesterday reports that we are living in a time of biodiversity loss on a scale that is unprecedented in human history. Up to a million plant and animal species face possible extinction, many within decades, and the measures we have taken so far to stem their loss are grossly insufficient to counter our growing impact.

The Assessment paints a dire picture of what is happening to our forests. For hundreds of millions of years, forests have been the lungs of our earth, regulating the earth’s greenhouse gases by absorbing and storing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and converting it into life-essential oxygen. These vital ecosystems are also the homelands of many Indigenous Peoples, and, as some of the last intact, undisturbed places on earth, also support wildlife seen nowhere else on the planet, from the orangutans of Indonesia to the caribou of the boreal forest.

Yet, according to the Assessment, in just the last 200 years, we’ve stripped away a third of all our planet’s forest cover. Between 1990 and 2015, we have cleared or harvested 716 million acres of native forests, which is equivalent to an area four times the size of Texas. Forest regrowth has not nearly kept pace, and our intact forests grow smaller by the day. This rate of forest consumption shows no sign of slowing.  

This Assessment comes after decades of government inaction around the world to confront industrial-scale forest loss. While some countries, like the U.S. and Brazil, have felt some heat over the years for their wanton forest degradation, others still manage to largely fly under the radar. In Canada’s boreal forest, for example, logging and other industries have been degrading intact forests at a rapid rate. Each year, the logging industry alone harvests over a million acres of boreal forest—a rate of 7 NHL-sized hockey rinks every minute. Much of what's taken from this invaluable forest goes to feed demand for products we use once and discard, like toilet paper. The impacts of this logging on species is well documented. Today, only 14 of the 51 boreal caribou herds remaining are self-sustaining, and, since caribou are an indicator for the broader health of the forest, their declines signal much more widespread biodiversity collapse. Yet no Canadian province has implemented the caribou protection plans the federal government’s scientists called for nearly seven years ago. Some provinces are even weakening the safeguards that were once in place.

Around the world, other forests also face industrial threats. In the U.S. Southeast, the logging industry is destroying forests to export wood pellets around the world for dirty biofuels. In Indonesia, the pulp and paper and palm oil industries are ravaging already degraded tropical forests and driving species like orangutans to extinction. In South America, the food industry is felling large swaths of forest for agriculture and cattle ranches.

While ecosystem collapse raises concerns of its own, the two crises of climate change and biodiversity loss go hand in glove. Forests, along with other ecosystems like wetlands and prairies, are essential to absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon. And older, intact forests are far better at sequestering and locking away carbon than young, regrowing stands, which is why converting our forests into fuel is even more carbon intensive than oil and gas. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted in its own alarming report last year, maintaining our intact forest ecosystems is a vital part of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Allowing the destruction of our forests threatens to undermine our pathways to avoiding truly earth-altering levels of warming. 

Rainforest in Borneo

There is still time to save our forests and forestall mass ecosystem collapse—but, as the Assessment outlines, we urgently need sweeping, broad-scale changes to the way we relate to and use our natural world and where our values lie. 

First, countries need to dramatically expand their ambition around protected areas. Our current goal of protecting 17 percent of terrestrial ecosystems isn’t nearly enough to sustain our ecosystems. We need to set our sights on protecting at least 30 percent of our forests and other landscapes by 2030 if we are going to forestall the worst of what the Global Biodiversity Assessment foreshadows while also effectively combating climate change. We also need to listen to Indigenous voices. As the Assessment makes clear, Indigenous Peoples are by far the earth’s most responsible caretakers. Where we have prioritized rapid, unsustainable consumption, Indigenous Peoples who have had to rely on forests for millennia know how to live within the bounds of what a forest can sustainably provide. And, while governments in Canada and elsewhere have prioritized industry interests and short-term profit, Indigenous Peoples have embraced sustainable management and protection. It’s time for governments to finally recognize Indigenous rights to dictate the future of their territories and to follow the leadership Indigenous Peoples around the world have shown on ecosystem protection.

Finally, it’s urgent we dramatically scale back our consumption of forests. Corporations are profiting off the destruction of our natural world. By speaking out, consumers can tell corporations that no shampoo, hamburger, or toilet paper is worth clearcutting tropical forests. Society's priorities are all out of whack, and governments and corporate actors need to lead the way in creating a more sustainable paradigm of consumption or be held accountable. Rather than hiding the true environmental impacts of their products, companies can innovate to create solutions that will help safeguard our natural world. We can have a high quality of life without destroying our forests, but our political and economic leaders need to rethink business as usual. 

Government leaders and companies should have addressed this crisis a long time ago, but there is still a glimmer of hope if we act now. Failure to protect and restore our forests will condemn future generations to a bleak reality where no one alive will remember what we once took for granted. Our forests have always sustained us. We need to make sure they can continue to do so for generations to come.