Have one-half of the world’s forests been converted to non-forest use?

I posted recently “You’re pulling my Yang. Ten reasons to use dead tree stuff,” the Yang being half of the Taoist Yin-Yang concept of male/female, light/dark/ ebb/flow, action/reaction. The post’s message was that we can’t look at only one side of an issue as a Yahoo Green blog had done (10 big reasons to stop using dead trees). In this post, my objective is to give you tips on double-checking the statistics tossed about in the green war for your wallet. One of the places the Yahoo blog had gathered its statistics was a report by the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), “The State of the Paper Industry: Monitoring the Indicators of Environmental Performance.” According to this report (and the Yahoo Green blog paraphrased), “Roughly half the world’s forests have been burned or cleared and converted to non-forest uses. Human activity has degraded almost 80 percent of what remains of the planet’s once vast forests.” This sounds troubling, if it proves to be true.

I’m Skeptical

Of course, EPN crafted this factoid to sound troubling. You’ll make rash decisions if a gun is pointed at you, won’t you? Words matter. This rhetoric is designed to get you to take action, specifically grabbing your credit card and giving money to continue the fight. “Crisis, real or not, is a commodity,” Tom Knudson wrote in his 2001 series, Environment, Inc., “And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.”

I’m also skeptical because of the organizations that EPN is affiliated with, including Tzeporah Berman‘s ForestEthics–an organization that, according to writer Mark Leiren-Young, “works with and/or bullies businesses into better environmental practices.” ForestEthics and World Wildlife Fund use “gray sources” and that will lead me to be more skeptical of the purported facts quoted. Ms. Berman contributed her ‘expertise’ to Leonardo DiCaprio‘s climate-change documentary, The 11th Hour.

The 11th Hour (film)

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Ms. Berman told the film’s producers, “I think you need to look at the world’s resources and data showing that’s showing that 80 percent of the world’s intact forests are already gone…” To which I would have said, “show me the data,” but they said, “Who are you?”

She was hired for that as a consultant after piping up at a Bioneers‘ Conference in Marin, California, “I think,” she told the group who turned out to be the movie’s producers and directors, “you need to look at the world’s resources and data showing that’s showing that 80 percent of the world’s intact forests are already gone and there are only three countries left in the world with enough forests to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services. And that’s Canada, Russia, and Brazil.” To which I would have said, “show me the data,” but they said, “Who are you?”

There are two parts to this: (1) Conversion of roughly half the earth’s forests and (2) Degradation of roughly 80% of our present forests. Let’s start with the conversion question.

Have roughly half the world’s forests been burned or cleared and converted to non-forest use?

Probably not. In his book “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” Bjørn Lomborg states that most authorities put the figure around 20 to 25 percent.

Of course, this is disputed by Emily Matthews, then with the World Resources Institute. Although she concedes, “Andrew Goudie [one of the authorities Lomborg cites], indeed gives a figure of 20 percent net loss in forest cover since pre-agricultural times. However, its author provides no reference or authority for this number.” Of course, neither does she state why this is incorrect. She does state, “Lomborg confusingly contrasts net loss of forest cover (that is, his figure of loss of natural forest offset by regrowth and new plantations) with loss of original forest (WWF‘s figure).”

Apparently, then, the contention is that one-half of the earth’s remaining forests have never, ever, been used for firewood, burned for plentiful game the following season, logged, or otherwise used for mankind’s purposes. I think the number is low because before humans developed agriculture, they used fire to change the forest’s composition to assure that young and tender new growth was there to attract game they could hunt.

Source: World Resources Institute

The terms do get slippery, don’t they? “Original forest” can mean pretty much whatever you want it to mean; it does not appear in the definitions of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The closest to what might be termed “Original” is the “Primary Forest” where the effects of humans no longer appear present. The FAO doesn’t fret about deep ecology or try to compare our current forests to forests before humans walked on two legs. They know we are in the Anthropocene Epoch. To the FAO deforestation and conversion mean the same thing: the change of use of the land (not the forest or its composition) to another land use or reducing tree canopy cover below 10 percent for a long time.

So, have half of the world’s forests been converted? That all depends on whose definitions you want to use. I would use Lomborg’s figure of 20-25 percent, since he uses FAO definitions and sources his number.

What do you say? Do you have any numbers to show that the earth has lost 1/2 of its forests?

Has human activity degraded almost 80 percent of what remains of the planet’s once vast forests?

I’ll get to that in the next post.


  • Deforestation (aka Conversion), “the conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of tree canopy cover below the 10% threshold.” (My emphasis)
  • Degradation, “the long-term reduction of the overall potential supply of benefits from the forest, which includes wood, biodiversity and any other product or service.”
  • Forest, “Forests are lands of more than 0.5 hectares, with a tree canopy cover of more than 10 percent, which are not primarily under agricultural or urban land use.”


Lomborg, Bjørn.,The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press. 2004 p.16


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Hot Air Cuts California Forests Out of Carbon Offset Program

In order for California’s proposed cap and trade system to be anything but a mockery we need to rip down the “Do Not Disturb” signs on much of California’s forests and commit ourselves to harvesting in California’s forests, even (gasp) clearcutting. Foresters and forest landowners aren’t the only ones who feel this way; the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees.

Last month, an out-of-state special interest group derailed the forestry portion of a provisional carbon cap and trade system aimed at lowering California greenhouse gas emissions.  You might guess that an oil company that pressured the California Air Resources Board to fold, but it was in fact a Tucson-based environmental lobby, the “Center for Biological Diversity” (CBD).

“We commend the Air Resources Board for its commitment to addressing the critical environmental questions related to forest carbon credits,” crowed a CBD spokesperson. “It’s crucial that the state not give incentives to business-as-usual clearcutting and other destructive logging practices that hurt our forests and do nothing to address the immediate impacts of climate change.”

It’s a case of the wrongheaded politically spinning a regulator, who should know better. Once again, spin consumes science, and those putatively for a healthy environment have obfuscated for their own gains. “Crisis, real or not, is a commodity,” Tom Knudson wrote in his 2001 series, Environment, Inc., “And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.”

For California to be part of the climate change solution, it must remove the “Do Not Disturb” sign currently on its forests. When we don’t cut here, we cut “over there,” contributing to deforestation and environmental degradation elsewhere while also increasing greenhouse emissions. (For more, see “The Illusion of Preservation.”) And it isn’t just foresters like me who think this way. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that we cut more wood, and use wood in place of concrete, steel, and other wood substitutes. By cutting forests, our forests, not someone else’s forest, we can contribute to saving the world.

For many of us the climate change debate borders on incomprehensible. I’m not saying I understand it all; but some context might be helpful for discerning how forests relate to global warming.

In 1895, Svante August Arrhenius, presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” In it, he argued that thermal radiation from the sun warmed the earth’s surface during the day and as the surface cooler at night, certain gases which included CO2 and water vapor, acted as a blanket retarding the escape of heat. The idea of plates of glass in a greenhouse allowing sunlight in and trapping the heat inside worked as a metaphor for the process, hence the ‘greenhouse effect.’

The worry now is that through our use of coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels; we have added too much CO2 as a result could the earth may be over-heating.

In 1988, the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess scientific information concerning human-induced climate change and the options for adaptation and minimizing its effects. In 1997, representatives from around the world met in Kyoto. They passed the Kyoto Protocol which sets binding targets for 63 industrialized countries to create five per cent less of their 1990 greenhouse gas (water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone) emissions.

In 2006, California passed a law similar to Kyoto, pegging our CO2 output to 1990 levels. Now I am skeptical that reducing our CO2 output will have any meaningful results. I think planting trees in urban settings and painting roads and rooftops white are better uses for our taxes. And we need to reduce tropical deforestation by cutting more trees in temperate forests such as California. All of these actions increase the albedo, the reflectivity of objects, which is part of the models used to predict global warming.

Nevertheless, because trees soak up CO2, the California Air Resources Board adopted a program that included allowing forest management activities for which CO2 emitters could buy carbon credits. The Center for Biological Diversity contends logging practices hurt our forests and do nothing to slow climate change. As I said before, the United Nations’ IPCC disagrees.

The IPCC says deforestation and severely degrading forests accounts for 20-25% of greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC is not talking about timber harvesting regarding deforestation and degradation). It also says the best strategies to prevent degradation and deforestation are: 1) “carbon conservation,” which includes both preventing forest conversion to agricultural uses, subdivisions or other non-forest uses, as well as controlling major fires; 2) “carbon sequestration and storage,” which means expanding forest area and/or biomass of natural and plantation forests; and 3) “carbon substitution,” which broadly means using wood products instead of non-wood products, all of which require more fossil fuel-based energy and materials. According to the IPCC, carbon substitution (wood products over cement, steel, aluminum, plastic, to name a few) has “the greatest mitigation potential in the long term.”

I’m a subject matter expert on growing wood; frankly it’s my passion. The growth and yield of forests is what forestry revolves around. Our California forests have the capacity to produce all the wood we need and export some as well, yet we import 75% of our wood. You can bet the wood we import wasn’t harvested under restrictions as comprehensive as those within California’s Forest Practice Rules requiring Timber Harvesting Plans that consider water, wildlife, and other concerns.

We need to stop trying to preserve everything and pretending that it doesn’t cause a mess elsewhere just because we can’t see it. The “not in my backyard” (Nimby) mentality outsources the mess: to Brazil, to Siberia, to countries not willing to enforce environmental regulations the way California can and will.

There has been a concerted effort to restrict logging by many environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to the Center for Biological Diversity. If green organizations truly cared about reducing CO2, they would embrace forest management in California. They would promote using California forests for the wood products that store carbon. They would demand that the national forests begin harvesting timber in greater quantities. And they would insist that we begin using wood instead of concrete, aluminum, steel, and other wood substitutes.

What can you do? Start buying sustainable California wood. At least, buy wood certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Write congress and tell them to push for harvesting in the national forests, rather than letting wildfires send more CO2 into the air (the California wildfires of 2001 – 2007 reportedly equaled 30 million cars on the road for a year).

Let’s stop pretending wood comes from the lumberyard.


Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1557–1568

Center for Biological Diversity Media Release, “California Withdraws Harmful ‘Carbon Credits for Clearcuts’ Forest Policy.” (http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2010/logging-credits-02-25-2010.html accessed 14 March, 2010)

Dekker-Robertson, Donna L. and William J. Libby. “American Forest Policy: Some Global Ethical Tradeoffs.” BioScience, Volume 48 No. 6

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  Technical Paper I: Forest Sector (http://www.gcrio.org/ipcc/techrepI/forest.html accessed 14 March, 2010)

McKillop, William. George Goldman, and Susanna Laaksonen-Craig. “Forestry, Forest Industry, and Forest Products Consumption in California.” UC Berkeley, Publication 8070  (http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/Forestry/8070.aspx accessed 14 March, 2010)

NASA, Earth Observatory Biography. Svante Arrhenius (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Arrhenius/ accessed 14 March, 2010)

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Clearcutting, Climate Change, and the Center for Biological Diversity

“A clearcut is about as beneficial to the climate as a new coal-fired power plant.”

– spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity

Spin consumes science

Such a sound bite is ‘spin;’ and we should not confuse such political posturing with fact. Perception trumps truth and the California Air Resources Board has caved to political pressure from CBD and its ilk, reversing its earlier decisions on carbon protocols. We should not be skipping and shouting yippee! The result runs counter to the goals and the scientific truths CBD professes to hold.

The Science of Carbon Sequestration

In the section on the Forest Sector the IPCC uses peer-reviewed science to back its priorities for using trees to reduce the affect of carbon-based fuels. These methods are:

1) carbon conservation,

2) carbon sequestration and storage,

3) carbon substitution.

Carbon conservation practices include preventing the conversion of forests to other land uses e.g., agricultural uses or subdivisions; and controlling major fires and pest outbreaks.

Carbon sequestration and storage practices include expanding forest area and/or biomass of natural and plantation forests.

Carbon substitution in general means substituting wood products for non-wood building materials, i.e., cement-based and metal-based products, rather than using fossil fuel-based energy and products.

Because forests are “renewable resources,” displacing fossil fuels for low energy-intensive wood products has, according to the IPCC, “the greatest mitigation potential in the long term.

Clearcutting is not the bogyman

If the CBD and other green organizations cared about human-caused global warming they would embrace forest management, including even-aged. They would promote using California forests for the wood products that store carbon. They would demand that the national forests begin harvesting timber in greater quantities. Our California forests have the capacity to produce all the wood we need and export some as well, yet we import 75% of our wood. You can bet the wood we import wasn’t harvested under restrictions as comprehensive as those within California’s Forest Practices Act. Did any of the harvests have a Timber Harvesting Plan that took water and wildlife into consideration?

Logging in California does not equal deforestation. As a forester, I have seen the before-and-after of tree cutting and I have watched forests over decades. I support conserving trees. I also support harvesting trees responsibly. We need to grow more trees.

We must use the wood we grow as a substitute for metal, concrete, and plastics wherever possible. As Greenpeace co-founder and another environmental heretic, Patrick Moore, points out, “Wood is the most renewable and sustainable of the major building materials. On all measures comparing the environmental effects of common building materials, wood has the least impact on total energy use, greenhouse gases, air and water pollution, solid waste and ecological resource use.” Don’t believe him or me? Read this peer-reviewed paper “Carbon dioxide balance of wood substitution: comparing concrete- and wood-framed buildings,” by Leif Gustavsson, Kim Pingoud, and Roger Sathre. Their research indicates “wood-framed construction requires less energy, and emits less CO2 to the atmosphere, than concrete-framed construction.”

CBD and their ilk promote Kabuki environmentalism with the “zero-cut” illusion of preservation, getting wood from countries with lax environmental enforcement. It’s unadulterated NIMBYism.

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