It is a widely known fact that every year a considerable number of trees are cut down around the world1. But what are the causes of cutting trees? Where does that happen in the world? What unwanted effects does it have?
Tree-cutting is a major part of many industrial and agricultural practices. From 1990 to 2015, there has been a net global forest area loss of as much as 129 million hectares1. Currently, we are losing a colossal 3.3 million hectares per year.
What is tree-cutting as opposed to deforestation?
The systematic criticism of tree-cutting has to be nuanced, however: there is a difference between “tree-cutting” and “deforestation”. We define deforestation as the permanent loss of forest and vegetation cover2, while tree-cutting can also include the ones that are not necessarily lost permanently.
If you glance around you, you will most likely find pieces of furniture made from wood, as well as some paper on your desk. Some countries that promote forest conservation also sustainably grow trees which are cut to manufacture these wood-derived products. The trees are only temporarily lost as they are eventually regrown in well-managed cycles. This is known as forestry—it represents about 26% of trees cut each year3.
Causes of cutting trees
More specific than tree-cutting, deforestation represents about 27% of total cut trees. The main causes of deforestation are urbanisation (cutting down vegetation to make space for a city) and the conversion of forests in agriculture, mining or energy infrastructures3.
Forest conversion happens mainly in the Amazon, Indonesia (for palm oil) and Malaysia—in other words, in large tropical rainforests. Among the many causes, forest conversion for agricultural purposes is by far the largest contributor. For example, from 2000 to 2010, the net forest loss in tropical countries was about the same as the amount of land gained for agriculture.1
Forest fires can also reduce forest cover, like the Australian bushfires in late 2019-early 2020. Some studies do not include fires as a driver of permanent forest loss as the forests could theoretically grow back3. However, the recent fires in Australia were exacerbated by climate change and were devastating in their environmental, economical and human cost4. The bushlands now have little recovery time before the next fire season, and hence are suffering permanent losses in the long term5.
Effects of deforestation on the environment
As one can imagine, the massive loss of global forests has several serious consequences on the environment. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide, losing them on a large-scale would lead to further global warming6.
Additionally, forests are home to a large biodiversity of plants and animals. Rainforests have a richer ecosystem—therefore, tropical deforestation particularly destroys natural habitats and leads species to their extinction7. This is the case in palm oil cultures, where monocultures of palm trees replace a very diverse ecosystem8.
Another effect of deforestation is soil erosion when the land becomes gradually less covered. The land then suffers from a decrease in nutrients9.
Many organizations call for better land-use policies as a result of this ongoing problem6,10.
1 Forests and agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities. FAO State of the World’s Forests. 2016: 88.
2 Deforestation. Wikipedia.
3 Curtis PG. Classifying drivers of global forest loss. Science. 2018 Sept 14; 361 (#6407): 1108-1111.
4 Morton A. Yes, Australia has always had bushfires: but 2019 is like nothing we’ve seen before. The Guardian. 2019 Dec 24.
5 Bushfire Weather. Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology.
6 2018 The State of the World’s Forests. FAO. 2018.
7 Readfearn G. ‘Silent death’: Australia’s bushfires push countless species to extinction. The Guardian. 2020 Jan 3.
8 Liu C.L.C. et al. Mixed-species versus monocultures in plantation forestry: Development, benefits, ecosystem services and perspectives for the future. Global Ecology and Conservation. 2018 Jul.
9 Henok K. Impact of deforestation on soil fertility, soil carbon and nitrogen stocks: the case of the Gacheb catchment in the White Nile Basin, Ethiopia. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 2017 Sept 1; 247: 273-282.
10 Breakthrough moment to end deforestation for palm oil. Greenpeace. 2018 Dec 17.