What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another. 1

Deforestation represented on a time line

In September of 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) endorsed the UN Climate Summit. 2 The voluntary, non-binding international declaration set ten shared forest management goals for signatories to meet by 2030. All of these goals relate to the economic, scientific, governmental, or technological management of forests through habitat conservation, commercial enterprise, and recreational activities. But, within the context of an internationalist Green New Deal, one goal in particular stands out: putting an end to natural forest loss. 3 Natural forest loss is the permanent transition from naturally occurring forests to another land use. Preserving existing forests is important to support the nearly 80% of terrestrial biodiversity that lives in forests, the 1.6 billion people who depend on forest ecosystems, and the gigatons of carbon stored within them. 4

Since its introduction, the NYDF has amassed more than 200 signatories, comprising national and sub-national governments, multinational corporations, indigenous rights groups, and NGOs from around the globe. Together these entities are hoping to be able to leverage their collective might and redefine the currently extractive relationship to the world’s forests. The NYDF calls for signatories to adapt new policies, alter supply chains, and reconfigure land uses in an attempt to end natural forest loss by 2030. As an interim benchmark, natural forest loss was to be halved from 2014 values (13 million hectares of annual forest loss) by 2020. To be on track with the goals of annual forest loss would have to fall to 6.5 million hectares per year. This number alone is an astounding amount of forest lost annually, but reducing forest loss by half would have been remarkable progress. By all accounts this goal has not been achieved: annual forest loss has increased 43% over the 2000-2018 period. To the NYDF’s credit (or perhaps delusion) they have continued with their initial goal of zero natural forest loss by 2030, meaning annual forest loss will have to be reduced by over 2 million hectares a year. The resolution faces one major challenge in reaching its goal, it is non-binding, meaning there are no enforcement methods or disincentives for signatories who have not aided in reducing natural forest loss. 5 Reaching zero forest loss will require adopting more concrete, binding resolutions at the international level. Adopting binding resolutions runs counter to the desires of corporate entities and NGOs who are seeking to open new resource markets in the global south in the name of sustainable development. 6

  • 2UN. “New York Declaration on Forests.” New York City: United Nations, 2014.
  • 3UN. “New York Declaration on Forests.” New York City: United Nations, 2014.
  • 4UN. “New York Declaration on Forests.” New York City: United Nations, 2014.
  • 5 Farand, Chloé. “Five Years after New York Declaration, Forest Promises Go Unmet.” Climate Home News. Climate Home, September 12, 2019. https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/09/12/five-years-new-york-declar….
  • 6 Link to FDI
  • Map of the globe showing areas covered by forest in green
    Map of the globe showing areas covered by forest in green
  • Map of the globe showing deforestation around the world
    Map of the globe showing forested areas (in green), areas of forest loss (red dots), and areas of forest growth (blue dots)

Large swaths of the world today are forested, shown above in bright green. Increasing urban sprawl, forest fragmentation, and unsustainable agricultural practices pose serious risks to the continued existence of robust forest ecosystems. Between 1990 and 2020 there were more instances of forest loss (red dots) than forest growth (blue dots), a pattern that is expected to continue and worsen throughout the 21st century. 7

Deforestation is, in simple terms, the permanent loss of forest ecosystems. It is a measure of absence and an indicator of presence—in this case, the presence of capital that treats trees and forests as either resources to be mined or as sites of redevelopment (and often both). Philip Curtis, leading a team of scientists, defines it as an “abrupt transition from land with trees to land without trees with no subsequent regrowth.” 8 These “abrupt transitions” are almost always anthropocentric. The most prevalent cause of deforestation is changes in land-use from forest to industrial agriculture. 9 Agricultural techniques to alter the land, including slash and burn, change the forest in an immediate sense; the ‘abrupt’ in abrupt transitions. Fire has historically been portrayed as the natural enemy of forests, but fire is an integral piece of most forest ecosystems. In the case of slash-and-burn agricultural techniques, the more insidious aspect is the yearly repetition of burning practices which avoid engaging with the ecological cycles of forests in favor of maintaining a consistent commercial agricultural land-use.

Agriculture is not the only culprit spurring forest loss; transitions in land-use also result from permanent commodity production, urbanization, forestry practices, wildfires, and other more localized weather events such as flooding, insect outbreaks, and ice storms. Weather events are more frequently being considered an aspect of deforestation, especially in areas where ecosystems are not able to recover between increasingly intense storms, flooding, or wildfire events. Philip Curtis found that between 2001 and 2015 the largest global source (27 ±5%) of loss was commodity-driven deforestation, where forested land is converted to commercial-scale applications of agriculture, mining, and energy infrastructure. Commodity-driven deforestation are often targets of groups aiming to decrease deforestation as they are subject to policies that can be altered in favor of preserving existing forests. Forestry practices accounted for 26 ± 5% of deforestation and wildfire for 23 ± 4%. The extent of forest lost from each practice varies locally, “in temperate and boreal forests, forestry and wildfire were the dominant disturbance factors; in tropical regions, shifting agriculture and commodity-driven deforestation were preeminent.” 10 These changes are likely to shift further as warmer climates shift towards the poles throughout the 21st century. 


  • 8Curtis, Philip G., Christy M. Slay, Nancy L. Harris, Alexandra Tyukavina, and Matthew C. Hansen. “Classifying Drivers of Global Forest Loss.” Science 361, no. 6407 (2018): 1108–11. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau3445.
  • 9Curtis, Philip G., Christy M. Slay, Nancy L. Harris, Alexandra Tyukavina, and Matthew C. Hansen. “Classifying Drivers of Global Forest Loss.” Science 361, no. 6407 (2018): 1108–11. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau3445.
  • 10Curtis, Philip G., Christy M. Slay, Nancy L. Harris, Alexandra Tyukavina, and Matthew C. Hansen. “Classifying Drivers of Global Forest Loss.” Science 361, no. 6407 (2018): 1108–11. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau3445.

The extent of forests around the world has declined by an estimated 16.4 million km2 (36% of the historical extent) over the last 200 years. 11

  • 11 Meiyappan, Prasanth, and Atul K. Jain. “Three Distinct Global Estimates of Historical Land-Cover Change and Land-Use Conversions for over 200 Years.” Frontiers of Earth Science 6, no. 2 (2012): 122–39. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11707-012-0314-2.

What once-forested land transitions to is also an important factor in determining the extent to which warming will increase as a result of deforestation. This is because forests have a low albedo, a measure of how much sunlight is reflected back off the earth into the atmosphere. Permanent changes in land use from forested land towards bare earth or concrete increase the albedo, increasing the warming potential in addition to releasing the carbon stored in the felled trees. 12 Like many factors of climate change, deforestation has cascading effects that compound towards greater levels of warming.

Measuring, managing, and mitigating global forest loss is crucial to ensuring the planet remains habitable throughout the 21st century. Deforestation of large areas of tropical forests have been found to spark global changes in rainfall patterns in certain regions of the world, leading to stress on agricultural systems within far off regions from the original site of deforestation. 13 Large forests, in addition to being unique and potent sources of biodiversity, are able to store large amounts of carbon. These two factors have made forests symbols for environmentalism and by extension for the fight against climate change. After the Rio Summit in 1992, forest protection –through limiting continued deforestation and planting billions of new trees around the globe–gained popularity throughout the world. 14 These proposals often took two different, complementary forms. First were calls for zero deforestation, a term that is loosely defined and has resulted in unclear successes (NYDF is one example). The second were massive afforestation projects, planting new trees at continental scales to establish new forests (The Great Green Wall is perhaps the most well-known version). Much of the confusion concerning zero deforestation stems from whether to use net deforestation or gross deforestation as the standard metric to achieve zero deforestation loss. 15 Net deforestation measures changes in tree cover over a given period, which critics say allows for native forests to be cut down and replaced with either young forests or tree plantations. Native forests are able to store more carbon, maintain higher levels of biodiversity, and have established hydrological cycles. These factors have led proponents of gross deforestation, the measure of forested land converted to non-forested land over a given time period, to argue for its adoption as the standard measure of zero deforestation. Advocates argue it can account for and filter out changes in tree coverage that are not permanent. Corporations have also begun to commit to the term in an effort to divorce their supply chains from deforestation practices. However, some scholars have argued that increased corporate transparency is important to fully understand the impact and efficacy of their claims towards reducing deforestation. 16


  • 12 Popkin, Gabriel. “How Much Can Forests Fight Climate Change?” Nature 565, no. 7739 (2019): 280–82. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00122-z.
  • 13 Lawrence, Deborah, and Karen Vandecar. “Effects of Tropical Deforestation on Climate and Agriculture.” Nature Climate Change 5, no. 1 (2014): 27–36. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2430.
  • 14 Savenije, Herman, and Pablo Pacheco. “Key Issues: Making Zero Deforestation Commitments Work Better,” 2017.
  • 15 Brown, S., and D. Zarin. “What Does Zero Deforestation Mean?” Science 342, no. 6160 (2013): 805–7. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1241277.
  • 16Savenije, Herman, and Pablo Pacheco. “Key Issues: Making Zero Deforestation Commitments Work Better,” 2017.

You know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at. 17

Afforestation projects have received considerable philanthropic and media attention, making them popular commitments for NGOs and governments the world over in slowing the Climate Crisis—a product of the political salience of trees (who could oppose them?), the ease of committing to such a planting program without ever worrying about oversight or accountability, and the reality that tree planting neither sequesters carbon on a geologic timescale nor requires any real confrontation with the primary agent of global climate change, the fossil fuel industry. High profile programs like Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami and Subsaharan Africa’s Great Green Wall have garnered much praise for their sustainable-minded commitments, but the two projects have resulted in varying levels of success. 18 19

Pakistan’s tree planting efforts began at a billion trees in 2015 by the sub-national government of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. The project’s success upon completion in 2017, sparked a countrywide initiative: 10 billion trees by 2023. The project to date faces its share of supporters and critics. The government has claimed the program has created 85,000 jobs, however concerns over effective forestry planning and the impact of massive tree growth on already strained water supplies have led some environmentalists to raise concern over the project’s overall long-term benefit for the country. Other environmentalists are holding out on the belief that the increased forest cover will alter local rainfall patterns and alleviate the water shortages experienced today. 20 Ultimately, the long term effects on the local climate and hydrology cannot be determined ahead of time, but adaptability in afforestation programs to local ecological conditions is paramount to their perceived success.

The Great Green Wall in Africa began as a strictly tree planting program in the effort to stave off creeping desertification of the Sahara. This was not an effective strategy for the local context, as Chris Reij from the World Resources Institute puts it, “if all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia.” 21 The project has since shifted its focus from rote tree planting to a mosaic of indigenous land-use and agricultural practices that worked in concert with the local ecology to bring back arable land to the region. The project has since seen an increase in its ability to stop desertification and preserve and recover arable land within the region. 22 Massive tree planting efforts make headlines, but can “distract from the greater priorities of protecting existing forest and reducing fossil fuel use” through their headline making capabilities over making meaningful changes on the ground. 23

Increasing focus on the health of our existing forests and in tree planting efforts are often seen as signs of changing tides in the fight against the Climate Crisis. This attention, while certainly advantageous, can become a distraction from the necessary work of decarbonizing the economy. A singular focus on afforestation allows fossil-fuel companies like Shell to claim planting 700 million trees in the Amazon will keep warming under 1.5C and to say nothing of their historical and continued role in deepening the groves of inequality that coincide with the effects of the Climate Crisis. 24 Projects which allow fossil fuel companies to join-in and still operate are not achieving climate justice, they are simply greenwashing the exploitative practices of the fossil-fuel industries. Reducing deforestation and new afforestation projects are integral parts of addressing the Climate Crisis, but they must be accompanied by a global reconfiguration of the socio-economic patterns that continue to subsidize oil and gas extraction at the expense of global people, forests, and their health. 

  • 24 Ibid.