Carbon emissions from deforestation: are they driven by domestic demand or international trade?

How much deforestation emissions are embedded in traded goods?


Deforestation for agriculture emits 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 each year – that’s 6.5% of global emissions. Most deforestation occurs in the tropics. Is this deforestation driven by domestic demand in these countries, or international trade? Two-thirds of deforestation emissions are driven by demand for food products in their home country; one-third is driven by international trade. Closer monitoring in international supply chains could therefore mitigate some of this deforestation, but without stricter policies in domestic markets, large-scale deforestation will continue.

95% of global deforestation occurs in the tropics. Brazil and Indonesia alone account for almost half. After long periods of forest clearance in the past, most of today’s richest countries are increasing tree cover through afforestation.

This might put the responsibility for ending deforestation solely on tropical countries. But, supply chains are international. What if this deforestation is being driven by consumers elsewhere?

Many consumers are concerned that their food choices are linked to deforestation in some of these hotspots. Since three-quarters of tropical deforestation is driven by agriculture, that’s a valid concern. It feeds into the popular idea that ‘eating local’ is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint. In a previous article I showed that the types of food you eat matter much more for your carbon footprint than where it comes from – this is because transport usually makes up a small percentage of your food’s emissions, even if it comes from the other side of the world. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, reducing meat and dairy intake – particularly beef and lamb – has the largest impact.

But, understanding the role of deforestation in the products we buy is important. If we can identify the producer countries, importing countries, and specific products responsible, we can direct our efforts towards interventions that will really make a difference.

One-third of CO2 emissions from deforestation are embedded in international trade

In a study published in Global Environmental Change, Florence Pendrill and colleagues investigated where tropical deforestation was occurring; what products were driving this; and, using global trade models, they traced where these products were going in international supply chains.1

They found that tropical deforestation – given as the annual average between 2010 and 2014 – was responsible for 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. That was 6.5% of global CO2 emissions.2

International trade was responsible for around one-third (29%) of these emissions. This is probably less than many people would expect. Most emissions – 71% – came from foods consumed in the country that they were produced. It’s domestic demand, not international trade, that is the main driver of deforestation.

In the chart we see how emissions from tropical deforestation are distributed through international supply chains. On the left-hand side we have the countries (grouped by region) where deforestation occurs, and on the right we have the countries and regions where these products are consumed. The paths between these end boxes indicate where emissions are being traded – the wider the bar, the more emissions are embedded in these products.

Latin America exports around 23% of its emissions; that means more than three-quarters are generated for products that are consumed within domestic markets. The Asia-Pacific region – predominantly Indonesia and Malaysia – export a higher share: 44%. As we will see later, this is dominated by palm oil exports to Europe, China, India, North America and the Middle East. Deforestation in Africa is mainly driven by local populations and markets; only 9% of its emissions are exported.

Since international demand is driving one-third of deforestation emissions, we have some opportunity to reduce emissions through global consumers and supply chains. But most emissions are driven by domestic markets – this means policies in the major producer countries will be key to tackling this problem.


How much deforestation emissions is each country responsible for?

Let’s now focus on the consumers of products driving deforestation. After we adjust for imports and exports, how much CO2 from deforestation is each country responsible for?

Rather than looking at total figures by country [if you’re interested, we have mapped them here] we have calculated the per capita footprint. This gives us an indication of the impact of the average person’s diet. Note that this only measures the emissions from tropical deforestation – it doesn’t include any other emissions from agricultural production, such as methane from livestock, or rice, or the use of fertilizers.

In the chart we see deforestation emissions per person, measured in tonnes of CO2 per year. For example, the average German generated half a tonne (510 kilograms) of CO2 per person from domestic and imported foods.

At the top of the list we see some of the major producer countries – Brazil and Indonesia. The fact that the per capita emissions after trade are very high means that a lot of their food products are consumed by people in Brazil and Indonesia. The diet of the average Brazilian creates 2.7 tonnes of CO2 from deforestation alone. That’s more than the country’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, which are around 2.2 tonnes per person.

But we also see that some countries which import a lot of food have high emissions. Luxembourg has the largest footprint at nearly three tonnes per person. Imported emissions are also high for Taiwan, Belgium and the Netherlands at around one tonne.

The average across the EU was 0.3 tonnes CO2 per person. To put this in perspective, that would be around one-sixth of the total carbon footprint of the average EU diet.3

Beef, soybeans and palm oil are the key drivers of deforestation

We know where deforestation emissions are occurring, and where this demand is coming from. But we also need to know what products are driving this. This helps consumers understand what products they should be concerned about, but also allows us to target specific supply chains.

As we covered in a previous article, 60% of tropical deforestation is driven by beef, soybean and palm oil production. We should not only look at where these foods are produced, but also where the consumer demand is coming from.

In the chart here we see the breakdown of deforestation emissions by product for each consumer country. The default is shown for Brazil, but you can explore the data for a range of countries using the “Change country” button.

We see very clearly that the large Brazilian footprint is driven by its domestic demand for beef. In China, the biggest driver is demand for ‘oilseeds’ – which is the combination of soy imported from Latin America and palm oil, imported from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Across the US and Europe the breakdown of products is more varied. But, overall, oilseeds and beef tend to top the list for most countries.

Bringing all of these elements together, we can focus on a few points that should help us prioritise our efforts to end deforestation. Firstly, international trade does play a role in deforestation – it’s responsible for almost one-third of emissions. By combining our earlier Sankey diagram, and breakdown of emissions by product, we can see that we can tackle a large share of these emissions through only a few key trade flows. Most traded emissions are embedded in soy and palm oil exports to China and India; and beef, soy and palm oil exports to Europe. The story of both soy and palm oil are complex – and it’s not obvious that eliminating these products will fix the problem. We therefore look at them both individually in more detail, to better understand what we can do about it.

But international markets alone cannot fix this problem. Most tropical deforestation is driven by demand for products in domestic markets. Brazil’s emissions are high because Brazilians eat a lot of beef. Africa’s emissions are high because people are clearing forests to produce more food. This means interventions at the national-level will be key: this can include a range of solutions including policies such as Brazil’s soy moratorium, the REDD+ programme to compensate for the opportunity costs of preserving these forests, and improvements in agricultural productivity so countries can continue to produce more food on less land.


  1. To do this, they quantified where deforestation was occurring due to the expansion of croplands, pasture and tree plantations (for logging), and what commodities were produced on this converted land. Then, using a physical trade model across 191 countries and around 400 food and forestry products, they could trace them through to where they are physically consumed, either as food or in industrial processes.

    Pendrill, F., Persson, U. M., Godar, J., Kastner, T., Moran, D., Schmidt, S., & Wood, R. (2019). Agricultural and forestry trade drives large share of tropical deforestation emissions. Global Environmental Change, 56, 1-10.

  2. In 2012 – the mid-year of this period – global emissions from fossil fuels, industry and land use change was 40.2 billion tonnes. Deforestation was therefore responsible for [2.6 / 40.2 * 100 = 6.5%].

  3. The carbon footprint of diets across the EU vary from country-to-country, and estimates vary depending on how much land use change is factored into these figures. Notarnicola et al. (2017) estimate that the average EU diet, excluding deforestation, is responsible for 0.5 tonnes CO2 per person. If we add 0.3 tonnes to this figure, deforestation would account for around one-sixth [0.3 / (1.5+0.3) * 100 = 17%].

    Notarnicola, B., Tassielli, G., Renzulli, P. A., Castellani, V., & Sala, S. (2017). Environmental impacts of food consumption in Europe. Journal of Cleaner Production, 140, 753-765.

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    author = {Hannah Ritchie},
    title = {Carbon emissions from deforestation: are they driven by domestic demand or international trade?},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2021},
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