The average Western consumer of coffee, chocolate, beef, palm oil and other staples is responsible for cutting down four trees each year, many of which are found in tropical forests rich in wildlife, a calculated the search.
The destruction of forests is a major cause of both the climate crisis and the fall of wild animal populations, as natural ecosystems are razed to the ground for agriculture. The study is the first to fully relate high-resolution maps of global deforestation to the vast array of products imported by each country around the world.
Research is exposing direct links between consumers and forest loss across the planet. The consumption of chocolate in the UK and Germany is a major driver of deforestation in Ivory Coast and Ghana, scientists found, while demand for beef and soybeans in the US, in the European Union and in China leads to the destruction of forests in Brazil.
Coffee drinkers in the United States, Germany and Italy are a major cause of deforestation in central Vietnam, research shows, while demand for wood in China, South Korea and Japan is leading to loss of ‘trees in northern Vietnam.
As a rich and populous country, the United States has a particularly large deforestation footprint, being the main importer of a wide variety of commodities from tropical countries, including fruits and nuts from Guatemala, rubber from Liberia. and timber from Cambodia. China bears the greatest responsibility for deforestation in Malaysia, resulting from imports of palm oil and other agricultural products.
Consumption in the G7 states represents an average loss of four trees per year per person, according to research; the United States is above average with five trees lost per capita. In five G7 countries – the UK, Japan, Germany, France and Italy – more than 90% of their deforestation footprint was in foreign countries and half in tropical countries.
Dr Nguyen Hoang, of the Humanity and Nature Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, led the research and said detailed maps could help target action to stop deforestation.
He added: “Policymakers and businesses can get a sense of the supply chains that are causing deforestation. If they know it, they can focus on those supply chains to find specific problems and solutions. “
Dr Chris West, University of York, UK, who was not part of the research team, said: ‘Consumption can have significant effects abroad, given our dependence on -to international supply chains. While policy at the government level is often focused on national concerns, the fact is that if we do not address this international footprint as well, we will continue to generate devastating environmental impacts globally.
“It cannot be tackled by nations alone, nor is it just a Western problem,” he said. “The increasing footprint of deforestation in China is particularly striking and demonstrates the need for multilateral action.”
The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, combined high-resolution data on forest loss and its drivers with a global database of international trade relationships between 15,000 industrial sectors from 2001 to 2015. This enabled researchers to quantify the deforestation footprint of each country. according to the consumption of its population.
The researchers said: “Despite the growing recognition of the severity of deforestation in developing countries, deforestation footprints [in rich nations] have remained largely unchanged [since 2000]. China, India and the G7 countries have increased forest cover in their own countries, but have also increased their deforestation footprint outside their borders.
One of the limitations of the study, recognized by the researchers, is that the lack of data meant it was unable to clearly link consumption to specific areas within countries. “We need larger scale analysis where possible,” West said.
The Trase project on which he is working allows for closer links for certain landscapes, and above all, the identification of the actors involved in deforestation. The data also failed to separate natural forests from cultivated forests – the latter are important in countries like Canada.
Paul Morozzo, an activist for Greenpeace UK, said: “The report highlights overconsumption and shows that individual choices – reducing meat and dairy for example – are important. But companies are not being honest. They do not take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products and that has to change. “
Reversing forest loss should be a priority for the next G7 summit, hosted by the UK, he added.
The idea that Western consumers could plant four trees to offset their deforestation footprint was sadly wrong, West said. “Cutting a tropical rainforest cannot be compensated for by planting a pine tree.”