Today we celebrate our forests and trees.
During this period of Covid-19, we suggest you take the opportunity for an outdoor stroll in some of our woods to admire the natural wonder of our trees.
Why are forests and trees important?
Forests are key to sustaining a healthy planet for future generations, supporting a myriad of plant and animal species around the world, sequestering carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and combatting climate change.
The world’s forests cover one third of its land area. Our own health and continued subsistence depend closely on the ecosystem services provided by forests and trees. Forests and trees provide vital resources such as oxygen and clean air, water and shelter, as well as other products we use in our daily lives such as food, medicines, fuel, paper and other raw materials.
Forests of Ireland
Ireland has experienced almost complete destruction of its forests from human activity; from forest cover of around 80% to less than 11%. According to Teagasc, “Ireland has the lowest forest cover of all European countries: approximately 11% compared to a European average of well over 30%”. The Irish Government has committed to increasing national forest cover to 17% by 2030.
Ireland’s forests range from native woodlands to commercial plantations, most of which consist of non-native, fast-growing conifers. Forestry and trees have a crucial role to play in Ireland's future, providing invaluable ecosystem services, carbon sinks, wildlife habitat, environmental protection, recreational facilities that encourage active and healthy lifestyles, and alternative employment.
Forests also regulate climate patterns and the water cycle, and protect against landslides, soil erosion and desertification.
Much of the energy consumed around the world can be traced back to forests in the form of wood, charcoal, oils and starch crops. Wood supplies approximately 40% of the world’s renewable energy, that is more than as solar, hydroelectric and wind power combined.Trees have significant potential as renewable energy resources to meet global energy demand. However, although trees grow back, we need to lobby for and safeguard sustainable forest management.
Forests support intricate ecosystems, they are home to over 80% of terrestrial animal, plant and insect species on earth; making up some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. These ecosystems are interconnected webs of plant and animal species that have evolved together.
Forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing the equivalent of approximately 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. When these trees are cut down, they release this carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. According to the FAO, deforestation accounts for nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, that’s more than the world’s entire transport sector.
Forests are now better monitored than ever before, primarily due to improved satellite imagery and computing power; enabling scientists, policy makers, companies and environmental groups to view deforestation in real time.
Unfortunately, our forests are under increasing pressure from human activities, primarily through deforestation to clear land for production. According to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest. About 17 percent of the Amazonian rainforest, ‘the Earth’s lungs’, has been destroyed over the past 50 years, and losses recently have been on the rise.
Kerry Group’s No Deforestation Commitment states that “between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 129 million hectares of forest, an area the size of South Africa. Agriculture is estimated to be the direct driver for around 80% of deforestation worldwide”.
It’s not only trees that are lost but the delicately balanced ecosystems that forests support. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that in recent years 10,000-100,000 species of plant, animal and insect are lost annually, and a large proportion of these can be attributed directly to deforestation and exploitation of forests around the world.
The four main drivers of deforestation
The four primary drivers of deforestation globally are the cultivation of beef, soybean, palm oil and wood products.
- Beef: Beef production is by far the largest deforestation driver globally. This is due to forest clearing for grazing lands and feed crops. Beef production is estimated to be responsible for destroying 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest each year and over half of Amazonian Rainforest destruction; five times as much as any other commodity in the region.
- Soybeans: Soybean production has doubled over the last 20 years, resulting in extensive deforestation, displacement of small farmers and indigenous people. This is primarily due to the growing global demand for meat and dairy products - around 75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. Soybean is also used to produce vegetable oil, biodiesel and other food products.
- Palm oil: Palm oil is the most widely used oil in the world, found in a vast range and quantity of processed foods and other products. Predominantly grown in Southeast Asia, palm oil has a significant impact on our climate. Palm oil cultivation is responsible for the deforestation of thousands of hectares every year, much of which is carbon-rich peatland. As a result, deforestation and draining of these important carbon sinks releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
- Wood products: Timber and wood pulp drive deforestation, where native forests are cut down and replaced with monoculture plantations of fast-growing tree species. Wood pulp is commonly used in the production of paper and other commodities. Timber for construction and manufacturing is linked to forest degradation, in which attractive and durable wood varieties from specific tree species are harvested.
Because these and other forest derived commodities are present in so many widely used consumer products, global deforestation is directly linked with our daily choices as consumers.
So, what can we as individuals do to help protect and restore forests and trees? Here are some simple actions we can take everyday:
- Purchase sustainably avoid harmful products and look for those certified as fair trade or coming from responsibly managed forests: such as Forest Stewardship Council ® (FSC) Certified and/or Rainforest Alliance Certified™.
- Eat less meat (or meat from known, sustainable sources) so that forests aren’t replaced with livestock and the crops to feed them;
- Eat local produce where possible;
- Cut down on paper: where possible avoid printing where possible, go digital with bills, refuse junk mail, switch to e-books and e-newsletters;
- Avoid disposable products: e.g. carry a refillable water bottle or keep cup;
- Cut back on waste: reduce, reuse and recycle;
- Ask businesses what they are doing: organisations need to understand that we expect them to take responsibility;
- Ask political leaders what they are doing to protect and restore our native woodlands;
- Plant a tree, preferably a native one, and incorporate trees into your landscape or garden.