Agriculture is the leading cause of some 75 percent of global deforestation. If rates of deforestation continue as projected, forests will diminish dramatically by 2100.

Strassbourg et al., 2012; Blaser and Robledo, 2007

Adapted from Strassbourg et al., 2012,

Extra facts

  • Deforestation and land use change (the conversion of forests into farmland) accounts for 2,200 to 6,600 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) per year, or 30 to 50 percent of agricultural emissions and about 4 to 14 percent of global emissions (Vermeulen et al. 2012 based on van der Werf et al. 2010 and Blaser and Robledo 2007).
  • Since 1850, land use change directly contributed some 35 percent of human-generated CO2 emissions (Foley et al. 2005).
  • Past trends imply that ~10 million km2 of land will be cleared by 2050 to meet demand, leading to annual emissions of 3,000 MtCO2e per year. A future course that spares more land could reduce land clearing to ~2 million km2 and GHG emissions to 1,000 MtCO2e/year per year (Tilman et al. 2011).
  • In the 1980s and 1990s, rainforests were the primary source of new agricultural land in the tropics. Future expansion of the global agricultural land base will clear tropical forests and shrubland ecosystems (Gibbs et al. 2010).
  • The combined contribution of deforestation and forest degradation emissions to total human-generated CO2 emissions is about 12 percent (with a range of 6 to 18 percent) (Van der Werf et al. 2009).
  • Between 1980 and 2000, more than 55 percent of new agricultural land replaced intact forests; another 28 percent replaced degraded forests. Even with agricultural yield increases and intensification, net agricultural area expansion will probably be needed to meet future demand (Gibbs et al. 2010: 16732).
  • Land use activities, primarily the expansion of agricultural land and the extraction of timber, have caused a net loss of ~7 to 11 million km2 of forest in the past 300 years (Foley et al. 2005).
  • Forests cover about 3952 million hectares of the globe—about 30 percent of the world’s land area. From 2000 to 2005, gross deforestation continued at a rate of 12.9 million hectares per year. Due to afforestation, landscape restoration and the natural expansion of forests, the most recent estimate of net forest loss is 7.3 million hectares per year (IPCC 2007: 544).
  • Croplands and pastures have become one of the largest terrestrial biomes on the planet, occupying ~40 percent of the land surface and rivaling forest cover in extent (Foley et al. 2005).
  • Between 1963 and 2005, the global area of cropland harvested increased 30 percent from 8.4 million km2 to 11.0 million km2.
  • Managed grazing occupies 25 percent of the global land surface (more than 33 million km2), making it the planet’s single most extensive form of land use (Asner et al. 2004: 262).
  • Land use for the livestock sector spans more than 39 million km2 (~30% of the world’s surface land area). Of this (FAO 2006), 5 million km2 are crops, most of which are intensively managed; 14 million km2 are pasture with relatively high productivity; and 20 million km2 are extensive pastures with relatively low productivity.
  • Some irrigated lands have become heavily salinized, causing a worldwide loss of ~1.5 million hectares of arable land per year and an estimated 11 billion USD in lost production (Foley et al. 2005).
  • Soil erosion, reduced fertility or overgrazing impacts up to ~40 percent of global croplands (Foley et al. 2005).
  • The main driver of land use change for agriculture was population growth. Now, in most regions, it’s shifting to dietary change (Kastner et al. 2012).
  • Cropland would have to be nearly doubled if the projected global population of more than 9 billion people in 2050 were to have North America’s current diet and agricultural technology. Cropland would have to be expanded70 percent to if the global population had Western Europe’s diet and technology (Kastner et al. 2012).
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Methods, caveats and issues

Van der Werf et al. (2009: 738) use Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methods and updated values, and suggest CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (excluding peatland emissions) of about 1.2 petagrams of carbon per year (Pg C yr–1), which is 23 percent less than the value stated in IPCC Working Group I’s 2007 report. As a result, deforestation and forest degradation emissions contribute about 12 percent of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Van der Werf et al. (2009) assume that rates of forest decline for 2000 to 2005 were almost the same as in the 1990s, based on survey and satellite-based approaches to calculate deforestation area. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion have increased substantially over the same period, making the relative contribution from deforestation and forest degradation even smaller.

The figure for agriculture’s contribution to total deforestation is 75 percent, which was estimated by Blaser and Robledo (2007). However, calculating agriculture’s share of this deforestation is fraught with uncertainties, and is not attempted by the IPCC.

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