Why “zero deforestation” is bad for forests

Over the last decade there has been increasing interest in reducing deforestation, spurred on by the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) initiative.

It’s a great thing that reducing deforestation is now being discussed a bit more seriously by policy makers, but it can lead to some perverse situations – as a new article by Sandra Brown & Daniel Zarin in Science discusses. (I know this article is not so new anymore, it just took me 2 weeks to get round to writing this post, ok?)

Numerous governments and companies have set themselves goals of “zero deforestation.” In some cases this means net deforestation, in others gross deforestation and others haven’t really defined what they mean…

So why is this dangerous? I hear you ask.

Well for one thing, not all “forests” were created equal. Net deforestation measures include both the loss of forest from deforestation and the gains from forest regrowth and plantations. Plantation and recovering forests are not the same as undisturbed forests which contain more carbon and unique species. Under this definition all native forests could be lost from an area and replaced with plantation without any apparent deforestation. Stupid, right?

Brown & Zarin suggest a way to get proper estimates of deforestation would be to build on the Brazilian system of a satellite monitoring of deforestation that is clear and transparent. In Brazil deforestation statistics only account for forest loss and not any of the gains from regrowth or plantations. There is no reason why we can’t do this type of monitoring given the fantastic technology available that is now able to produce high resolution, global maps of forest change, like those below (go here to see more of these).

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The paper also suggests practical ways to reduce the problems of deforestation in individual countries, depending on their development. Countries are commonly categorised as having little forest loss, accelerating forest loss, decelerating forest loss and reforestation – these are said to represent the stages of forest transition. Use of non-forest land for agriculture should be encouraged in countries where forest loss is high, as has been encouraged for palm oil in South East Asia previously. However, in countries with low forest loss but little non-forested land that can be cultivated setting zero deforestation targets is unreasonable, given expanding populations.

As a big idea zero deforestation sounds great. But next time you hear someone talking about it think about what they actually mean.  Gross deforestation and reforestation should be considered as separate aims, to avoid confusion. Without this “zero deforestation” is set to mean very little.

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