Shortly after the end of the last great ice age – 10,000 years ago – 57% of the world’s habitable land was covered by forest. In the millennia since then a growing demand for agricultural land means we’ve lost one-third of global forests – an area twice the size of the United States.
Half of forest loss occurred in the last century alone. But it’s possible to end our long history of deforestation: increased crop yields, improved livestock productivity, and technological innovations that allow us to shift away from land-intensive food products gives us the opportunity to bring deforestation to an end and restore some of the forest we have lost.
How much forest has the world lost
In the chart we see how the cover of the earth’s surface has changed over the past 10,000 years. This is shortly after the end of the last great ice age, through to the present day.
We can see that of the 14.9 billion hectares of land on the planet, only 71% of it is habitable – the other 29% is either covered by ice and glaciers, or is barren land such as deserts, salt flats, or dunes.
The bar chart just below shows the earth’s surface cover just after the end of the last ice age.2 10,000 years ago 57% of the world’s habitable land was covered by forest. That’s 6 billion hectares. Today, only 4 billion hectares are left. The world has lost one-third of its forest – an area twice the size of the United States.
If we fast-forward to 1700 when the global population had increased more than ten-fold, to 603 million. The amount of land used for agriculture – land to grow crops as well as grazing land for livestock – was expanding.
The turn of the 20th century is when global forest loss reached the halfway point: half of total forest loss occurred from 8,000BC to 1900; the other half occurred in the last century alone. This emphasises two important points.
How can we put an end to our long history of deforestation?
This might paint a bleak picture for the future of the world’s forests: the United Nations projects that the global population will continue to grow, reaching 10.8 billion by 2100. But there are real reasons to believe that this century doesn’t have to replicate the destruction of the last one.
The world passed ‘peaked deforestation’ in the 1980s and it has been on the decline since then. Improvements in crop yields mean the per capita demand for agricultural land continues to fall.
• Since the last ice age, global deforestation equates to an area double the size of the United States.
• Half of this has been lost in the last century, as land-intensive agriculture has has been required to feed a growing global population.
• Technological innovations offer an opportunity to bring deforestation to an end and restore some of the forests we have lost.