Drivers of Deforestation: In the Tropics, Urbanization Plays a Key Role

The Shift to Urban Living Changes Agriculture and Consumption Patterns

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Stopping tropical deforestation is something that almost everyone can agree upon as a reasonable and intelligent way to reduce CO2 emissions. Trees absorb atmospheric CO2 and emit oxygen, acting as planetary lungs. Tropical rainforests are some of the largest stands of trees in existence.

So we know what we want to keep. The question is how to do so.

Some suggest monetizing the rainforests. But such models — pristine, spare, and elegant on a newspaper page or in an academic monograph — are set to fail when they enter into the world.

Others involve monetizing the rain forests more indirectly, as William Powers recommends in the World Policy Journal, by selling avoided deforestation as a carbon credit on a global carbon market. This is the REDD program. Again, elegant in principle, elephantine in practice — we cannot rely on forests to permanently offset emissions because they can be cut down or otherwise destroyed. Meanwhile, the underlying issues driving deforestation, namely production and consumption, remain unaddressed.

Powers also highlights another problem, noting the concerns among some people “that turning the rainforests into a commodity not only cuts away at sovereignty, but will line the pockets of millionaire middlemen.” Plenty of people stand to profit from a carbon market, and in the wake of the financial meltdown, it’s not exactly fuming radicals who worry that financiers and those who Adam Smith called the Masters of Mankind might seek to make a profit from their brokerage houses with little care about the after-effects.

So the question of saving tropical forests rests not only upon agreeing on a common goal but also upon agreeing on a reasonable route to get there.

One way to proceed is to figure out the drivers. That is the goal of a recent study, “Deforestation driven by urban population growth and agricultural trade in the twenty-first century,” published in Nature Geoscience.

The study’s main and telling conclusions are that deforestation in the tropics is “positively correlated” both with local urban population growth and agricultural exports, while burgeoning rural populations are not associated with felling forests:

"The strong trend in movement of people to cities in the tropics is, counterintuitively,
likely to be associated with greater pressures for clearing tropical forests."

Urban population growth and agricultural trade pressure forests in different ways in different regions of the world. For example, in the African tropical biomes in which deforestation rates are relatively low, the association with urban growth is less pronounced, according to the authors, from Columbia University, Rutgers University and South Dakota State University. They also found that agricultural trade is not significantly associated with deforestation in African countries, whereas it is in Asian countries.

The researchers cite work showing how rural-to-urban migration in the 1980s and 1990s perhaps reduced demographic-pressure-induced deforestation in those decades, however, from 2000 to 2005, there has been a shift to “enterprise-driven deforestation” — corporations making money but cutting down forests for lumber or to create fields for agricultural production.

The researchers note that urbanization raises “consumption levels” and leads to an increase in demand for agricultural products, because urban consumers “generally eat more processed foods and animal products than rural consumers.”

The effects of over-processing food are themselves drivers of CO2 emissions — the processing and transport sectors contribute to CO2 emissions, and animal products are a major contributor to CO2 emissions, according to the landmark Food and Agriculture Organization report, Livestock’s Long Shadow. (In the developed world, where urbanization can reduce CO2 emissions by cutting down on vehicle use, consumption of processed and packaged food is already high, so the shift to urban living has little impact on agricultural emissions.)

The researchers also highlight the biofuel-based-pressure on forests, well known in the cases of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Any policy aimed at reducing deforestation through market-based “incentives” will fail unless it addresses demand and consumption, they write.

That means increasing agricultural production on already-planted land. There will be those who will argue that a second Green Revolution, inserting technology into the countrysides of the global South, is the solution, but a concerted transition to organic agriculture will accomplish the goal of increased production fare more handily, and far more sustainably.

Weaving together all of these points, it’s clear that the problem of deforestation is one related to both production patterns and consumption patterns.

Policy planning must be a driving force. Planning can take the form of rigidly enforced laws against deforestation, relying on the state to say that deforestation is simply intolerable. But it also means cutting back on beef and ethanol consumption in the first world if we are interested in saving the verdant flora of the third world. Reducing emissions will not be without cutbacks at home — a world without hamburgers or a world without rainforests? I hope that people in the global North would choose the former.


See also:

Deforestation Pushing Amazon to Its Ecological Limits

EU Fuel Rules Could Exacerbate the Palm Oil Problem

One Change Could Cut Brazil’s Carbon Emissions in Half


Photo by Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace