The truth about the global forest and tree-cover

24 mar 2021

Reports about the forest cover shows that the truth can be explained in many ways. Reidar Persson, SIFI, clears up the confusion.

The World Forest Inventories were started by FAO in 1948. The information has been mainly based on questionnaires through close co-operation with countries. Since the 1980s, deforestation has received the most attention in the Forest Resources Assessment (FRA). From early on, many in the US argued that FRA should be based on remote sensing (or rather information from NASA). Nowadays, the World Resources Institute (WRI) is the main proponent of this view.

Differences between forest and tree-covered land 

The 2015 Forest Resources Assessment (FRA2015) reported a net deforestation of 3.3 million ha/year. In contrast, a couple of years later, WRI reported a loss of 25 million ha/year, based on Landsat satellites. Many ENGOs were very pleased with this information! However, it should be clarified that WRI did not report about forest but about all tree-covered land. This means that the data included parks and oil palm plantations, but not open forests and forests under regeneration. It should also be pointed out that the data on loss includes clear-cuts in tree-covered areas, apple plantations cleared for regeneration, and areas killed by fires, insects, and storms, in addition to traditional deforestation as a result of change of land use. WRI aims to estimate the level of regeneration, but this information cannot be collected with the help of Landsat satellites.

One football field of rainforests

Time and again, it is reported that one football field’s worth of rainforest is destroyed every six seconds. That sounds like terrible post, and such figures often prompt a concerned discussion about what will happen when all the rainforests are gone. But in reality, if one football field’s worth of rainforest is destroyed every six seconds, this means that the rainforests will last for 266 years. The truth can obviously be explained in many ways!

FRA should present all types of tree cover

In summary, WRI gives inaccurate information about the forest and tree-cover situation. It is time for FRA to start presenting information about all types of tree cover (FRA already has the necessary information) and not only forest cover. FRA presents figures for forests on the level of 4 billion ha. If all wooded land is included, this area is probably around 6.5 billion ha.

Facts and fake post

A key problem in this situation is that WRI tends to present the information that certain ENGOs want to hear. For example, the Norwegian rainforest group Regnskogsfondet has recently published a report, State of the Rainforests, about rainforests in different countries, mainly based on WRI data, without acknowledging the problems with the information. In all likelihood, they are not aware of the inaccuracies. This may be seen as an example of fake post, which is becoming ever more prevalent in our society with the rise of social media. Clearly, it could be a challenge to tell the difference between facts and fake post. Further, in Sweden it seems to be impossible to agree on certain basic facts about the state of forests. There is obviously a need for a specialised think tank for forests, or rather for all kinds of land use.

Facts, myths and lies

Learn more about this situation and get clarifications by reading the report The Global Forest and Tree-Cover Situation in 2020 – Facts, Myths, Lies & White Lies, by Reidar Persson.