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Do We Have Enough Forests?

Sten Nilsson


Deforestation is causing a dramatic decline in:

  • wood for industrial use, fuel and other human needs
  • the ability of forests to balance climate changes
  • natural habitats and biodiversity
  • quality of life, particularly in areas of degraded land

March 2001

Forests cannot meet the demand for wood products.

Amazon deforested area, in the State of Pará, Brazil. Photographer: Leonardo F. Freitas, Creative Commons

All signs indicate that we do not have enough forests on the globe to fulfill all the current and future demands (in a broad sense) on global forests. There may not be a physical shortage of forests, but the different kinds of demands will be difficult to meet simultaneously. A review of the scientific literature indicates that the following points must be highlighted:

Current forest resources

Shortage of wood for fuel and charcoal impacts developing nations.
  • Shortage of industrial roundwood: Studies show that there will probably be a rather substantial regional shortages of industrial roundwood already by 2010 and a global shortage of industrial coniferous roundwood by 2010.10,18,21

  • Dramatic shortage of fuelwood and charcoal: Currently, all signs indicate that there will be a crucial shortage of accessible fuelwood and charcoal. This shortage will limit socioeconomic development in the developing world. However, there are great uncertainties in current estimates on demand for and supply of fuelwood and charcoal. There is an urgent need to start global analyses of the fuelwood situation based on a bottom-up approach.

  • Continued increases of deforestation and degeneration in the tropics: All signs show a dramatic increased loss of forest resources and degeneration in the tropics. It can only be concluded that countermeasures taken against deforestation have been insufficient. There are also many uncertainties connected with the rate of future degradation and degeneration of the forests.3,8,9,24,25,33

Human activity impacts

Plantations help ease shortage of forestry wood.
Recycling is not improving the situation.
  • Rapid development of industrial plantations: In 1995 the industrial plantation area was estimated to be 103 million ha and the non-industrial plantation area to be 20 million ha. Over 50% of the plantations are assessed to be less than 15 years and 25% are less than five years.7,34 The establishment of new plantations is assumed to increase between 160 and 235 million ha in year 2050.7 Around 2030 the industrial wood supply from plantations is estimated to be 45% of the total consumption of industrial wood compared to 22% in 1997. Thus, the above-identified regional and global shortages of wood supply would be much worse without the establishment of plantations.4,18

  • Increased usage of recovered paper and non-wood fibers: The usage of recovered paper and non-wood fibers will continue to increase. But this increased usage will probably not improve the regional and global shortages of fibers identified in the foreseeable future.

  • Dramatic land-use changes will continue: Dramatic land-use changes will continue to seriously affect forest resources. These changes will influence deforestation rates, fiber supplies, fuelwood supplies, and supplies of non-wood products and functions.3

Planting forests can diminish land degradation.
  • Non-wood demands will continue to grow: “New” demands, such as lifecycle approaches, biodiversity, environmental protection, water, hunting, ecotourism, and recreation, will continue to grow. A serious problem with these demands is that few attempts have been made to analyze their impacts on other forest functions and socioeconomic developments. Studies on these aspects are urgently needed.6

  • The degradation of land will continue: There are some 1.2 billion hectares of moderately to extremely degraded land on the globe. The continuation of this degeneration process is due to several different factors. Restoration of degraded lands requires that efforts focus on huge areas of tree-cover plantations and closed forests. Efforts made so far are insufficient.

Managing and collecting data

The southern hemisphere and Russia hold the keys to wood products.
The biggest problem is human demand for forestry products.
  • Uncertainties in the roundwood supply estimates: Only rough estimates exist on what the global exploitable forest can and will produce in the form of roundwood in the future. The estimates for major supply regions vary as much as 100% according to reliable analysts. The rate of increment in the main regions is still uncertain. There are substantial problems with the reliability of the growth data, not only in the developing world but also in the developed world.1,32

  • Two regions hold the keys to the industrial roundwood balance: Plantations in the Southern Hemisphere are crucial to balancing the global supply of non-coniferous fibers. Many questions remain on the outlook for plantations in the Southern Hemisphere. Russia holds the key to balancing the global supply of coniferous forests. But two questions remain unanswered: Can and will Russia develop its enormous inventory of coniferous forests?22

  • Forestry’s role in the climate change process is uncertain: The prospects for improving the carbon balance through plantations, improved silviculture, and replacement of fossil fuels by wood are rather bright. Much research is going into this field, but limited actions based on future climate concerns have been implemented. A new mechanism is required if forests are to play a crucial role in balancing future climate changes.

  • Increased forest production will improve the global environment: Based on the reviews in this paper, it can be concluded that the largest global environmental problem connected to forestry is probably the limitations of forest production. Similar conclusions have been made by some environmentalists.16 It is also probable that, for global forests to play a crucial role in the lifecycle, society will require increased forest production.

  • Lack of data, knowledge, and consistent overview: There is a serious lack of data, knowledge and consistent overviews of the items on the global forestry agenda.32 Analyses and understanding on how the different items on the agenda interact at large-scale levels are also lacking.

    • The World Bank states “immediate action is needed to make forest monitoring reliable and more than a once-a-decade event.”35
    • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) points out that there is an urgent need to conduct “studies on a global basis concerning areas under the risk of biodiversity losses.”17

Given that efforts are underway to set internal forestry policy, it is rather astonishing that so much data and knowledge are still missing. International organizations such as the FAO and the World Bank and aid organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), and Finnida (a Finnish aid organization) have pumped billions of dollars into forestry activities over the decades, and yet we cannot answer some of the most basic questions concerning global forest resources and their functions.

There is obviously a need for a new approach in international forestry.

Is current international policy adequate?

Most forestry policies are set internationally.
  • Forestry policy, to a large extent, is now set at the international level. In many cases it is carried out through international political negotiations and it often follows the Precautionary Principle.20,23
  • International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are playing a major role; they are attempting to achieve a New Global Governance Agenda that increases the power of new international bodies and decreases national power.14,28 As a result of these new trends, actions taken are often based on incomplete information, and the consequences they may have on national and global forest resources, forest functions, and socioeconomic developments are seldom analyzed in advance.27

Environmental issues in forestry have also become a springboard to broader social and political concerns often rarely considered in any other sector.28 This may be a positive development if we take into account certain events.

  • In 1978 the World Forestry Congress stated that “forests are for the people.”
  • The World Bank concluded that one of the purposes of the Earth Summit in Rio was to give people the right to different environmental functions of the earth. Some have defined sustainable forestry to mean “all things to all people.”30,31
  • Cousteau says the goal of civilization is to ensure to all a certain “quality of life,” adjoined by a fundamental “joy of living.”13
International policies are inconsistent and often inadequate.

But there is an inconsistency in the international environmental organizations’ attempts at policy setting. Even if they speak about broader social and political concerns in connection with environmental forestry issues, their actions are mainly based on pure environmental values. There are also inconsistencies in the policy setting by governments concerning natural resources. There are concessions to the environmental values, but the policies are driven mainly by traditional macroeconomic criteria (mainly gross domestic product — GDP), which only measure the produced assets and do not consider human resources and natural capital. Recently, the global society has started to question the traditional GDP criterion. “If GDP is up, why is America down?”11 “The issue is whether we have indicators that are relevant to people’s needs.”26 Similar concerns have been expressed in The Economist 15 and by Becker5.

Manufactured goods are used to indicate economic health but represent less than 20% of the wealth.

Recently, the World Bank made a major breakthrough by merging the different values in society.29

  • The Bank has incorporated human resources and natural capital criteria in its evaluation of wealth and has arrived at tentative results.
  • From the 192 countries studied, the World Bank has concluded that produced assets (manufactured capital) represent only 16-20% of the wealth. Manufactured capital has, to a large extent, directed policy setting on natural resources.

In order for different international organizations to make a solid contribution to forestry policy-setting and to the future of society there is a need for critical thinking on which roles the international organizations should play in this process and how they should contribute to the policy-setting.19

Thus, the environment is only part of the problem. The other parts are jobs, the quality of life, and so on and they are all connected at the same points: the governance of the resources.2,12

In conclusion: Policies must consider environmental as well as human needs.

The challenge

How much forest do we need? What types of forests do we need? Where should they be located? These are questions that need to be addressed objectively, taking into account human resources, produced assets, and natural capital. Only then can we establish solid policies for forests and for society.

Who or which organization will take on this challenge?

Currently, Sten Nilsson, Ph.D., is a researcher at The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria. He is also a working member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry and an Academician of the International Academy of Informatics, Russia. He received his M.Sc. in forestry and his Ph.D. in economic planning from the Royal College of Forestry in Stockholm and taught economic planning at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Do We Have Enough Forests?

BioScience Article

“Ecosystem Thinking in the Northern Forest—and Beyond.”
In this BioScience article (June 2009), Likens and Franklin discuss environmental impacts of forests in the United States and Canada, including acid rain, fragmentation of landscapes, mercury and salt pollution of water resources, invasive alien species and diseases, and climate change. They also propose actions to protect and restore the vital ecosystem functions of the Northern Forest Ecoregion. Read the abstract, or log in to read the full article.

Conservation from the treetops

Read another forestry article on our site; this one is about canopy ecology by Bruce Rinker.

Man of Trees

A web site devoted to Richard St. Barbe Baker, the world’s greatest forester, responsivle for the planting of more trees that anyone else in history.

Forests in your region

Clicking a region on the world map will give you information about the status of that region’s forests, from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Forest Conservation Portal

News, action alerts, information, and searchable database of Internet links.

World Forest Institute

“Access to information on international markets, new products, evolving technologies, wood species & characteristics, and emerging trends in forestry.” A program of World Forestry Center.

Global Forest Watch

Offers interactive maps and data on worldwide deforestation

World Resources Institute

A unique opportunity for the general public to see through modern imagery technology a clearer picture of the threats to the world’s forests.

Center for International Earth Science Information Network

A non-profit, non-governmental organization that provides information to policy-makers, scientists, and the general public about issues in our changing world.

World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development

10 recommendations for sustaining the world’s forests from the final report of the WCFSD.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

A non-governmental research organization located in Austria. The institute conducts inter-disciplinary scientific studies on environmental, economic, technological and social issues in the context of human dimensions of global change.

Forest Action Network

An activist organization involved in protecting the world’s forest resources.

World Rainforest Movement

Check out campaigns to save forests with information that is organized by subject and country.

New Forests Project

People-based, direct-action effort concentrates on combating the destructive logging and deforestation in international developing countries.

Native Forest Network

This global effort aims to conserve forests by promoting alternatives to endangered trees, educating about mill pollution, and saving public lands. Action alerts are also provided.

Legal defense for conservation

This non-profit environmental law firm offers several ways for you to help the cause to protect forests and other ecosystems.

Buy FSC approved lumber

The Forest Stewardship Council, an international group that promotes good stewardship and management of forests, explains what to look for when buying lumber to support the cause.

Global Forest Watch

Offers interactive maps and data on worldwide deforestation.

Open workshops/forums

Several general forest workshops and open forums on the state of forests and GM trees. original lesson

This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany the above article. It includes article content and extension questions, as well as activity handouts for different grade levels.

Lesson Title: Deforestation: Can We See the Forest for the Trees?
Levels: high school - undergraduate
Summary: This lesson explores cause and effect of deforestation and possible solutions. Students can interview forest management staff, write forest conservation policy statements, investigate uses of wood products in the neighborhood… and more!

Download/view lesson.
(To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Lessons for middle school

The following links will take you to middle school lessons available on other web sites:

Useful links for teachers

Useful link for student research

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:
Forest Resource Environmental Education (FREE) Network
This site is for teachers and students at all grade levels who want to learn more about forests and the management of forests. Within this site are:
*research resources
* lists of teaching resources categorized by topic and grade level
* list of teaching units by topic
* downloadable PowerPoint slides that can be used in computerized presentations or converted to overhead transparencies
* an environmental quiz that has been administered to thousands of students and adults nationwide
* links to other forest-oriented information sites

  1. Adlard, P.G., 1995, “Myth and Reality in Growth Estimation.” Forest Ecology and Management 71:171-176.
  2. Apsey, M., Laishley, D., Nordic, V. and Paillé, 2000, “The Perpetual Forest: Using Lessons from the Past to Sustain Canada’s Forests in the Future.” The Forestry Chronicle, Vol. 76, No. 1:29-53.
  3. Barraclough, S.L. and Ghimire, K.B., 2000, Agricultural Expansion and Tropical Deforestation — Poverty, International Trade and Land Use. Earthscan Publications, London, UK.
  4. Bazett, M., 2000, “Long-Term Changes in the Location and Structure of Forest Industries. Paper presented at the World Bank/WWF Alliance/Council on Foreign Relations Global Vision Research Project,” 15 January 2000, Washington, D.C.
  5. Becker, G.S., 1995, “Housework: The Missing Piece of the Economic Pie.” Business Week, October 16, 1995.
  6. Briassoulis, H. and van der Straaten, J., 2000, Tourism and the Environment. Regional, Economic, Cultural and Policy Issues. Revised Second Edition. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  7. Brown, C., 1999, “Global Forest Products Outlook Study.” Thematic Study on Plantations, FAO, Rome, Italy.
  8. Brown, S. and Lugo, A.E., 1990, “Tropical Secondary Forests.” Journal of Tropical Ecology 6:1-32.
  9. Brown, S., Hall, C.A.S., Knabe, W., Raich, J., Trexler, M.C. and Woomer, P., 1993, “Tropical Forests: Their Past, Present, and Potential Future Role in the Terrestrial Carbon Budget.” Water, Air and Soil Pollution 70:71-94.
  10. Bull, G., Mabec, W., and Scharpenberg, R., 1998, “Global Fibre Supply Model,” FAO, Rome, Italy.
  11. Cobb, C., Halstead, T. and Rowe, J., 1995, “If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?” The Atlantic Monthly Volume 276, No.4.
  12. Commonor, B., 1991, “Environmental Democracy Is the Planet’s Best Hope,” In Plant, C. and Plant, J. (Eds.) Green Business: Hope or Hoax? Green Books, Ford House Hartland, Devon, UK.
  13. Cousteau, J.-Y., 1995, “The Global Challenge,” In Serageldin, J. and Steer, A. (Eds.) “Environmentally Sustainable Development Proceedings Series No. 2”, The World Bank, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
  14. Dewar, E., 1995, Cloak of Green: Business, Government and the Environmental Movement, James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto, Canada.
  15. Dewar, E., “How does your economy grow? Economists know surprisingly little about the causes of economic growth.” The Economist, September 30, 1995, pp. 110.
  16. Edman, S., 1995, “Increased Forest Production Supports the Life-Cycle,” No. 43, 1995 (in Swedish).
  17. FAO, 1995b, “Forest Resources Assessment 1990, Global Synthesis,” FAO Forestry Paper 124, FAO, Rome, Italy.
  18. Hagler, R.W., 1999, “The Global Timber Supply/Demand Balance to 2030: Has the Equation Changed?” Wood Resources International, Reston, Virginia, USA.
  19. Mayers, J. and Bass, S., 1999, “Policy that works for forests and people.” International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London, UK.
  20. Nilsson, S., 1995c (Ed.): “Boreal Forests — The Role of Research.” Interdivisional Session, 1995 IUFRO World Congress, August 7, 1995, Tampere, Finland.
  21. Nilsson, S., Colberg, R., Hagler, R. and Woodbridge, P., 1999, “How Sustainable are North American Wood Supplies?” Interim Report IR-99-003, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria.
  22. Nilsson, S. and Shvidenko, A., 1998, “Is Sustainable Development of the Russian Forest Sector Possible?” IUFRO Occasional Paper No. 11, International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO), Vienna, Austria.
  23. O’Riordan, T. and Cameron, J. (Eds.) 1994, Interpreting the Precautionary Principle, Earthscan, London, UK.
  24. Palo, M. and Mery, G., 1996, Sustainable Forestry Challenges for Developing Countries, Kluwer Academic Publishers, London, UK.
  25. Poore, D., 1994, “Setting the Scene. Science, Forests and Sustainability. A Policy Dialogue,” December 10-16, 1994, CIFOR, Indonesia.
  26. Prowse, M., 1995, “Better Ways to Measure Progress.” Financial Times, Oct. 2, 1995.
  27. Sallnäs, O., Carlsson, M. and Dahlin,B., 1995, “Economic Impact of Certification: A Case Study from Middle Sweden.” Unpublished Manuscript. Dept. of Efficiency, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Garpenberg, Sweden. (in Swedish).
  28. Sargent, C. and Bass, S. (Eds.), 1992, Plantation Politics: Forest Plantations in Development, Earthscan, London, UK.
  29. Serageldin, J., 1995, “Sustainability and the Wealth of Nations: First Steps in an Ongoing Journey.” Third Annual World Bank Conference on Environmentally Sustainable Development, September 30, 1995, The World Bank, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
  30. Serageldin, J. and Steer, A. (Eds.), 1995, “Valuing the Environment.” Environmentally Sustainable Development Proceedings Series No. 2, The World Bank, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
  31. Tomorrow, 1995, “Light at the End of the Forest.” Tomorrow: Global Environment Business. Vol. V, No. 2.
  32. UN, 2000, “Forest Resources of Europe, CIS, North America, Australia, Japan and New Zealand,” UN-ECE-FAO Contribution to the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000. United Nations, New York and Geneva.
  33. WCFSD, 1999, “Our Forests — Our Future.” Report of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, Cambridge University Press, UK.
  34. Whiteman, A. and Brown, C., 1999, “The Potential Role of Forest Plantations in Meeting Future Demands for Industrial Wood Products,” International Forestry Review, Volume 1, Number 3.
  35. World Bank, 1995, “Monitoring Environmental Progress.” A Report on Work in Progress Environmentally Sustainable Development, Sept. 1995, The World Bank, Washington, D.C., USA.


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