Humans destroyed forests for thousands of years – we can become the first generation that achieves a world in which forests expand

Why has humanity destroyed such vast forests? And how can we bring this to an end?

For thousands of years humans have destroyed forests. At the end of the last great ice age, an estimated 57% of the world’s habitable land was forested.1 Since then, people in all regions of the world have burned and cut down forests. The chart shows this. The forested land area declined from 6 to 4 billion hectares. That means our ancestors destroyed one-third of the former forests – a forest area twice the size of the US was lost.

There are two big reasons why humans have destroyed forests and continue to do so – the need for land and the need for wood:

The land use for farming did not only come at the expense of the world’s forests, but also led to the huge decline of the world’s other wild spaces, the shrub- and grasslands. The chart shows this too.


In many countries forests continue to be destroyed. The series of charts shows this. In all of these countries the forest cover today is lower than three decades ago.3


Most of the forests that are destroyed today are in the tropics, some of the most biodiverse regions on our planet. Why is this happening?

The following chart shows what is driving the ongoing destruction of the world’s largest tropical forest: the Amazon. The expansion of agricultural land to raise cattle is the most important driver, by far.4

I wish this was more widely understood. Land use for agriculture is the main threat to the world's biodiversity.5


Most of the destruction of tropical forests is due to consumers in the region, but about 12% of the deforestation in the tropics is driven by demand from high-income countries. Beef-eaters around the world are contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.6

This huge impact of meat consumption on deforestation is also visible in the first chart that showed the history over the last 10 millennia – 31% of the world’s habitable land is now grazing land for livestock. This is an extremely large part of the world; taken together it is as large asall of the Americas, from Alaska in the North down to Tierra del Fuego in the South.

Meat consumption is such a large driver of deforestation because it is a very inefficient way to produce food. The land use of meat production is much higher than plant-based foods. Reducing meat consumption is therefore a way to increase the agricultural output per land area. A shift away from the land-intensive production of meat, especially beef, would be a major way to make progress and end deforestation. One possible way to get there is to make clear how large the environmental impact of meat production is. Another – complementing – way is to produce meat substitutes that people prefer over beef.

The end of deforestation?

After thousands of years of deforestation is there any hope that it could be different?


In fact there are many countries that brought their history of deforestation to an end. Several even turned it around so that forests there are now expanding.

This reversal, from deforestation to reforestation, is called a Forest Transition. The chart shows the data for some of the countries that have achieved this.7

As mentioned before, while it is the case that several countries have achieved this transition, it is also the case that consumers in these countries contribute to deforestation elsewhere.


Crucial for these turnarounds was technological progress that reduced the demand for fuelwood and agricultural land.

These two technological changes can be complemented by effective policies and regulations. Zero-deforestation policies restrict deforestation and programs like REDD+ of the FAO compensate poorer countries and farmers to make forest protection economically more attractive than deforestation.8

Can we achieve a Global Forest Transition in our lifetime?

If we want to protect our planet’s forests the world as a whole would need to achieve what many countries have achieved already, the turnaround from deforestation to reforestation – a global forest transition.

Countries around the world have made the end of deforestation their explicit goal: At COP26 in Glasgow, countries with about 85% of the world’s forests pledged to end deforestation by 2030.

The last chart shows where the world is in this effort.

The brown part of the chart shows the history of the temperate forests. These forests as a whole have achieved the transition: deforestation was high in the past, then peaked in the first half of the 20th century, and from the 1990s onwards temperate forests have expanded in size. Temperate forests are growing back.

The challenge is now to achieve the same in tropical forests, which are shown in green. We are making progress in this direction: the rate of deforestation in the tropics was highest in the 1980s. Since then, the rate of deforestation has declined by a factor of three.

If we can further decrease the demand for fuelwood and agricultural land it seems possible to bring deforestation in the tropics to an end.

If we achieve the global forest transition in our lifetimes it would be a major success for the protection of the world’s biodiversity. Additionally it would bring greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation to an end, and expanding, rather than shrinking, forests would instead suck more carbon out of the atmosphere.


We can become the first generation that achieves a world in which forests expand

How can we bring deforestation to an end? There is no single answer, but, as we have seen, a few big changes can bring this big goal into reach.

More productive agriculture that allows more production on a smaller land area, a shift away from meat, effective conservation policies, and a shift to modern energy sources: by bringing all of these factors together we could get there. Not only would we save existing forests from being cut down, we might also free up space for forests to grow back.

In our lifetime we have the unprecedented opportunity to bring our long history of deforestation to an end. For the first time in millennia we could achieve a world in which forests expand.


  1. 57% of the world’s habitable land was forested and habitable land accounts for 71% of the world’s land surface. This means (0.57*0.71=0.4047) that 40% of the total land surface was forested.For more information on the data see see Hannah Ritchie’s Our World in Data article The world has lost one-third of its forest, but an end of deforestation is possible.

  2. Today about half of all wood extracted from forests globally is used to produce energy, mostly for cooking and heating. See: FAO (2017) – The Charcoal Transition. In FAO – Wood Energy - Basic Knowledge the authors write “The annual removal of wood worldwide was estimated at about 3.7 billion m3, of which 1.87 billion m3 was used as fuel. On the African continent the reliance on wood as fuel is the single most important driver of forest degradation. See: FAO and UNEP. 2020. The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome. The same report also reports that an estimated 880 million people worldwide are collecting fuelwood or producing charcoal with it. In addition to the destruction of the natural environment, the reliance on fuelwood also contributes between 2 and 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the 2017 FAO publication The Charcoal Transition the use of firewood and charcoal contributes between 1-2.4 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases annually, which is 2-7% of global anthropogenic emissions.

  3. Here is the interactive version of this chart in which you can download the data, compare these countries with other countries, and in which you find information on the data sources.

  4. The land use of different beef production systems varies. A big reason why beef drives so much deforestation in Brazil in particular is that Brazil has very low-density cattle-ranching (very few cows per unit of land).

    On this point see the following studies:

    Feltran-Barbieri, R., & Féres, J. G. (2021) – Degraded pastures in Brazil: improving livestock production and forest restoration. Royal Society Open Science, 8(7), 201854.

    The authors find that “the Brazilian cattle sector has performed far below its biophysical potential. The observed average productivity is 89 kg ha−1 yr−1. However, biocapacity exceeds 172 kg ha−1 yr−1. Despite significant regional heterogeneity in technology adoption and production specialization, extensive and inefficient production systems are unfortunately common in the country.”

    Schmidinger, K., & Stehfest, E. (2012) – Including CO2 implications of land occupation in LCAs—method and example for livestock products. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 17(8), 962-972.

    One key finding of this study that is relevant here is that “The highest CO2 implications of land occupation are calculated for beef and lamb, with beef production in Brazil having a missed potential carbon sink more than twice as high as the other GHG emissions.”

    Also see Cederberg, C., Persson, U. M., Neovius, K., Molander, S., & Clift, R. (2011) – Including carbon emissions from deforestation in the carbon footprint of Brazilian beef.

    One reason that explains part of the poor performance of beef production in Brazil is that in other cattle agricultural systems – such as in Europe – there are more mixed-dairy herds than in Brazil. So that the environmental impacts per nutritional value of beef production are shared between beef and dairy in these systems. In Brazil, more cattle are exclusively used for beef which means a higher footprint per kilogram of beef.

    Finally also see the text on carbon opportunity costs by my colleague Hannah Ritchie. The first chart there makes this point well.

  5. Williams, David R., Michael Clark, Graeme M. Buchanan, G. Francesco Ficetola, Carlo Rondinini, and David Tilman (2021) – ‘Proactive Conservation to Prevent Habitat Losses to Agricultural Expansion’. Nature Sustainability 4, no. 4 (April 2021): 314–22.

    Also see Hannah Ritchie’s ‘Our World in Data’-essay on this research, with interactive visualizations of the data.

  6. Most beef produced by Brazil is consumed by people in Brazil. At the time of writing the latest data was for 2018 when about 80% was consumed domestically: Exports of beef in 2018 were  about 2.1 million tonnes; production of beef was about 10.2 million tonnes.

    The data on Annual CO₂ emissions from deforestation in Brazil by product is also useful to see in this context.

  7. Here is the interactive version of this chart in which you can download the data, compare these countries with other countries, and in which you find information on the data sources.

  8. For an evaluation of such policies (via an RCT) see Jayachandran, Seema, Joost de Laat, Eric F. Lambin, Charlotte Y. Stanton, Robin Audy, and Nancy E. Thomas (2017) – ‘Cash for Carbon: A Randomized Trial of Payments for Ecosystem Services to Reduce Deforestation’. Science 357, no. 6348 (21 July 2017): 267–73.

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    author = {Max Roser},
    title = {Humans destroyed forests for thousands of years – we can become the first generation that achieves a world in which forests expand},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2022},
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