Forest - the ultimate survival tech #11
The heaven of biodiversity that we are cutting down
August 5, 2021
Survivaltech.club is back from summer vacation! I had a fantastic time windsurfing in Yyteri, the Hawaii of Finland. Also, I read fascinating books like Educated by Tara Westover and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.
For the past week, I’ve been learning about forests. They are truly fascinating and complex ecosystems. A cool fact about trees is that they are natural fractals!
I am excited to share with you what I’ve learnt. In this deep dive, I want to underline the importance of biodiversity. It was a relatively new concept for me. Only now am I starting to comprehend its importance for humanity's survival.
Enough of chatting. Let’s learn about those cool forests!
What’s been going on with forests?
We, humans, have cut down one-third of the world's forest over the last 10,000 years. That's 2 billion hectares of forest lost - twice the size of the United States.
Take a moment to internalize that.
Every year, we cut down about 10 million hectares of forest. Although deforestation has decreased in the recent decades, 10 million hectares is inarguably a lot.
Explore the world’s forests and changes in them with the Global Forest Watch’s interactive map.
Why are we cutting down forests? (Psst, it’s agriculture)
One word already describes the bulk of deforestation: agriculture.
We’ve turned about half of the world’s habitable land for agriculture's use: crop fields and pasture lands.
We are almost 8 billion humans living on this planet. But then we have our livestock friends: 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion pigs, 1 billion sheep, and 19 billion chickens that need to be fed.
77% of the land in agriculture is used for growing or feeding livestock. I find this absolutely crazy.
Were we all to eat only plants, we would need only half of the land we use today! Nowadays, we feed 75% of the produced soybeans to our livestock when we could in fact, eat it ourselves (if you are not allergic to it).
In addition to agriculture, we cut forests to get timber and to extract minerals from the Earth. It is also worth mentioning that as much as 2 billion people rely on fuelwood to meet their energy needs.
Why are biodiverse forests crucial for humanity?
Our humanity needs forests to survive. Forests are the ultimate survival tech with powerful features like:
1. Natural carbon capture machines
Forests are full of trees and plants that naturally capture CO2 through photosynthesis. Then, as a rather awesome byproduct of photosynthesis, they provide us oxygen to breathe and live.
Each year, the world’s forests capture 15.6 Gt of CO2e! That’s quite an achievement.
However, as we cut down forests and make them more vulnerable to wildfires via climate change, forests can start to act as a carbon source. Nowadays, forests emit 8.1 Gt of CO2e every year.
The recent development is worrisome. A new study published last month in Nature found out that the Amazonia is now a net carbon source. So, Amazonia releases more carbon dioxide than its rainforest can photosynthesize and capture carbon dioxide.
Amazonia hosts the Earth’s most extensive tropical forests, which have (previously) been an important carbon sink.
2. Home for biodiversity
Forests host most of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. This biodiversity (= variety of species) is essential also for us humans.
Firstly, our food system is dependent on biodiversity.
The State of World’s Forests 2020-report lists that we need, for example:
- Dryland-adapted shrub and tree species to combat desertification
- Trees with extensive root systems to prevent soil erosion
- Forest-dwelling insects, bats and bird species to pollinate crops.
The last point on pollination is super important. Over 75% of global food crop types rely on animal pollination. Moreover, these crops represent 35% of all food production!
Secondly, our health relies on biodiversity.
There is growing evidence that preserving intact ecosystems and their biodiversity can reduce the prevalence of infectious diseases.
Furthermore, deforestation and the expansion of human populations into forest areas can cause us to suffer from new infectious diseases. These diseases are called zoonotic diseases, as they spread from wild animals to humans.
A recent zoonotic disease (with very high confidence) that we all are too well aware of is COVID-19.
Note on biodiversity:
Biodiversity and climate change are tightly interconnected.
For some reason, biodiversity is not talked about as much in the media as climate change. At least I have not been too aware of the acuteness of the biodiversity loss.
To learn more about biodiversity, I recommend reading Biodiversity and climate change - workshop report by IPBES and IPCC and watching David Attenborough’s documentary “A Life on Our Planet”.
What can we do about deforestation?
The first and best thing we should do is stop cutting down our ultimate survival tech - the forests.
Intact primary forests would be vital to preserve. This is because these forests hold the most biodiversity.
The second best thing is to reforest lands that used to be forests. Reforestation can be done either by natural regeneration or by planting trees.
We should do deforestation with special care to avoid adverse outcomes. For example, we should plant enough diverse species to ensure biodiversity. We should also prioritize reforesting lands that used to be forests.
The above information is from this great publication: “10 golden rules for deforestation to optimize carbon sequestration, biodiversity recovery and livelihood benefits” by Di Sacco et al.
Can tree planting be harmful? (Spoiler: Yes)
You may have the image of tree planting as the most heroic climate action that each of us can take to save the planet.
This is at least the picture that society had planted (pun intended) in my head. So when laying out my 30-year goal for CO2e reduction in my first Survivaltech.club post, I calculated how many trees I’d need to plant.
Tree planting has negative consequences if we are not careful enough in executing it. Negative effects of tree planting include increases in invasive species, reduction in pollinator services, reduction in croplands and food production, and disruption of water cycles.
Tree planting is even used as an excuse to cut forests. But the difference between a newly planted forest and an intact primary forest is like day and night. Primary forests are immensely rich in biodiversity.
The concerns related to tree planting are explored well in this article by Adam Welz at Yale Environment 360.
Our obsession with tree planting (intervention) reminds me of the concept of iatrogenics that Nassim Taleb discusses in his book Antifragile. Iatrogenics means that a treatment causes more harm than benefits.
Want to explore iatrogenics in more detail? Read the Farnam Street’s article. Also, I highly recommend the book Antifragile itself!
What pioneering startups are there?
- Pachama - developing the marketplace for forest carbon credits. Forests are verified with AI. In the USA.
- Living Carbon - genetically engineering trees to grow faster and more durable. In the USA.
- Single.Earth - building a transparent and accessible carbon credit marketplace with cryptos, satellite imaging, and machine learning. In Estonia.
- Dendra - restoring ecosystems intelligently and transparently with drones. In the UK.
If you were to open only one of the following links, choose David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet - documentary by Netflix. It’s a truly eye-opening and shocking documentary addressing both climate change and biodiversity loss.
Other great learning sources are:
- The State of the World’s Forests 2020 by FAO
- Forests and Deforestation by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, Our World in Data
- Biodiversity and climate change - workshop report by IPBES and IPCC
- The Interactive World Forest Map by Global Forest Watch
Questions that I left wondering
- What would be the optimal balance between 1) keeping the carbon stored in biodiverse forests vs. 2) making wood products as substitution products for plastic, steel, concrete etc.
- When and where does a tree store most of its carbon?
It's good to be back! I feel that I learn massively from doing these deep dives. I hope that you learn as well!
Next week, we are going to have an interview from a founder who is on a mission to preserve the world's forests and their biodiversity. This is so exciting!
As always, feedback, questions, and requests for coffee breaks are more than welcome via firstname.lastname@example.org!
Until next week. Go for a walk in your nearby forest :)
- Di Sacco, A., Hardwick, K.A., Blakesley, D., Brancalion, P.H.S., Breman, E., Cecilio Rebola, L., Chomba, S., Dixon, K., Elliott, S., Ruyonga, G., Shaw, K., Smith, P., Smith, R.J. and Antonelli, A. (2021). Ten golden rules for reforestation to optimize carbon sequestration, biodiversity recovery and livelihood benefits. Global Change Biology, 27(7), 1328-1348. Link
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2020). The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Link
- Fraanje, W. & Garnett, T. (2020). Soy: food, feed, and land use change. Link
- Gibbs, D., Harris, N. & Seymour, F. (2018). By the Numbers: The Value of Tropical Forests in the Climate Change Equation. World Resources Institute. Link
- Harris, N.L., Gibbs, D.A., Baccini, A. et al. (2021). Global maps of twenty-first century forest carbon fluxes. Nature Climate Change, 11, 234–240. Link
- Holmes, Edward C, Goldstein, Stephen A, Rasmussen, Angela L, Robertson, David L, Crits-Christoph, Alexander, Wertheim, Joel O, Anthony, Simon J, Barclay, Wendy S, Boni, Maciej F, Doherty, Peter C, Farrar, Jeremy, Geoghegan, Jemma L, Jiang, Xiaowei, Leibowitz, Julian L, Neil, Stuart J D, Skern, Tim, Weiss, Susan R, Worobey, Michael, Andersen, Kristian G & Rambaut, Andrew. (2021). The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review (1.0.2). Link
- IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G. F. Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. Link
- Keesing, F., Belden, L., Daszak, P. et al. (2010) Impacts of biodiversity on the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. Nature, 468, 647–652. Link
- Pörtner, H.O., Scholes, R.J., Agard, J., Archer, E., Arneth, A., Bai, X., Barnes, D., Burrows, M., Chan, L., Cheung, W.L., Diamond, S., Donatti, C., Duarte, C., Eisenhauer, N., Foden, W., Gasalla, M. A., Handa, C., Hickler, T., Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Ichii, K., Jacob, U., Insarov, G., Kiessling, W., Leadley, P., Leemans, R., Levin, L., Lim, M., Maharaj, S., Managi, S., Marquet, P. A., McElwee, P., Midgley, G., Oberdorff, T., Obura, D., Osman, E., Pandit, R., Pascual, U., Pires, A. P. F., Popp, A., Reyes-García, V., Sankaran, M., Settele, J., Shin, Y. J., Sintayehu, D. W., Smith, P., Steiner, N., Strassburg, B., Sukumar, R., Trisos, C., Val, A.L., Wu, J., Aldrian, E., Parmesan, C., Pichs-Madruga, R., Roberts, D.C., Rogers, A.D., Díaz, S., Fischer, M., Hashimoto, S., Lavorel, S., Wu, N., Ngo, H.T. (2021). IPBES-IPCC co-sponsored workshop report on biodiversity and climate change. IPBES and IPCC. Link
- Ritchie, H. & Roser, M. (2021). Forests and Deforestation. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Link
- Thornton, A. (2019). This is how many animals we eat each year. Link
- Welz, A. (2021). Are Huge Tree Planting Projects More Hype than Solution? YaleEnvironment360. Link