Good News About the Earth’s Forest: They’re Growing

By Jacob Friesen

Our planet has more trees now than it did 36 years ago. That is the key finding of a new study in Nature magazine. We often have a gloomy view of the state of the world’s forests: news of deforestation in the Amazon and severe forest fires around the world paints a grim environmental picture.

This study shows that picture to be incorrect. Using satellite data, it maps changes in tree canopy cover from 1982 to 2016 by continent, country, and climate zone. Asia experienced the greatest net gain in tree canopoy cover, with a net gain of 992,000 sq km, followed by Europe with a net gain of 741,000 sq km, North America with a net gain of 378,000 sq km, and Oceania with a net gain of 16,000 sq km. South America had a net loss of tree canopy cover of 431,000 sq km, and Africa had a net loss of 5,000 sq km. Three countries led the way in increasing net tree cover: Russia, with a net gain of 790,000 sq km; China, with a net gain of 324,000 sq km; and the United States, with a net gain of 301,000 sq km. At the climate zone level, the temperate climate zone had the greatest net gain in tree canopy cover, followed by, respectively, the Boreal, Subtropical, and Polar climate zones, while the Tropical climate zone had a net loss in tree canopy cover. In other words, loss of tree cover in regions classified as withing the tropical climate zone, especially South America, as compensated for by gains in tree cover in other regions.

In total, from 1982 to 2016, the area of the planet covered in trees increased by 2.24 million sq km, to 33 million sq km – a gain of 7.1 percent. That’s an are the size of Texas and Alaska combined. Gains in tree cover are being driven by a variety of factors, including less land being needed for agriculture, especially in North America, Europe, and parts of Asia, and increases in global temperatures allowing forests to push further in the direction of the poles. Meanwhile, much of the loss in tree cover is connected to agriculture.

The most important takeaway from this is that humans grow more trees than they chop down. While the factors driving deforestation are human-made, so are the key factors driving forest growth. As mentioned above, better farming practices and technological innovations have reduced the amount of land needed to produce food in several regions. Additionally, some of the increase in tree cover is the result of commercial activities, such as industrial timber plantations and mature palm oil estates. There has also been a considerable push for responsible environmental regulations during the period examined in the study. All this shows that industry, science and technology, and governments can effectively preserve and promote the environment. Moreover, the evidence of the last thirty years shows that economic growth and environmental health do not have to be at odds: global tree cover expanded even as economic growth lifted more people out of poverty than ever and humanity experienced the most peaceful, prosperous period in its history.

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