Deforestation is one of the greatest contributors to climate change, with over 10 million hectares of land around the world being affected by the practice every year. But which countries are contributing the most to these deforestation rates and how does Australia compare?

The Deforestation Report from  Utility Bidder was created from Our World in Data figures by looking at the countries with the highest deforestation rates, the most significant increase in deforestation, the greatest decrease in deforestation and the agricultural products most responsible for deforestation. 

Top 10 countries with the highest deforestation rates:

RankCountryContinentAverage deforestation (hectares) between 2015-2020
1BrazilSouth America1,695,700
7ParaguaySouth America279,340
10BoliviaSouth America242,540
Source: Our World in Data

Australia has ranked 5th overall in the study, destroying an average of 416,840 hectares of forestry per year between 2015-2020.

Australia is the only developed nation on the list and has been for some time.

From 2001 to 2021, Australia lost 8.73Mha of tree cover, equivalent to a 21 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 2.40Gt of CO?e emissions, according to Global Forest Watch

You can view the full report here.

While Australia’s deforestation rate is concerning, the 2015-2020 figures represent a 33 per cent reduction on the 626,200 hectares that was cleared between 1990 and 2000. Globally, this is the fourth biggest decrease in deforestation rates over the period. 

In terms of the main causes of deforestation, the study uncovered the following as the global culprits:

RankAgricultural ProductAnnual deforestation (hectares)
3Forestry logging678,744

Other cereals (excl. rice & wheat)445,902
5Vegetables, fruit & nuts379,251
6Paddy rice287,785
7Other crops184,020
8Sugar cane/beet57,796
10Plant-based fibres25,297
Source: Our World in Data

Also, elsewhere:

  • Brazil has reduced their deforestation levels by 2,559,100 hectares since 1990 – more than any other country.
  • With a difference of 284,400 hectares in forestry loss between 1990 and 2020, India has seen the biggest increase in deforestation.

With 2,105,753 hectares of forestry loss, cattle is the agricultural product most responsible for deforestation.

This is true in Australia, where beef cattle farms are responsible before almost 75 per cent of all deforestation.

But could it be fire?

In case you were thinking it was fire that was mainly responsible for the loss of trees, here is an interesting fact. There were 38,447 VIIRS fire alerts reported between 28th of March 2022 and 20th of March 2023 considering high confidence alerts only, which is in within normal range for the past 10 years. 

In other words, fires are attracting more media attention these days but the number of reported fires has not changed.

The real cause

In their most recent analysis from 2021, WWF singled out NSW and Queensland for high rates of clearing, but there are further areas of concern in Victoria and Tasmania.

“Land-clearing rates rocketed after the axing of restrictions in Queensland and NSW placing eastern Australia alongside the most infamous places in the world for forest destruction,” WWF-Australia conservation scientist Martin Taylor said.

“Despite Queensland restoring some restrictions in 2018, eastern Australia remains a deforestation front. That will not change until we see rates of destruction go down.”

As with most parts of the world where deforestation is happening, agricultural production is responsible for most of the deforestation. This is especially the case in Queensland, where more than three quarters of the 2.1 million hectares of woody vegetation cleared between 2014 and 2019 occurred on beef farming properties, according to a 2022 Queensland Conservation Council and Wilderness Society report. 

That same year, Queensland quietly released its latest figures, showing clearing rates in 2019-20 had fallen to under two Australian Capital Territories that year (around 418,000 hectares). 

In 2020 Australia exported $2.69 billion of beef, making it the second largest beef exporter in the world.

Where does it go to? The main customers are Japan, the USA, South Korea, China and the United Arab Emirates. 

Would you believe it also imports beef? In the same year $9.5 million worth came into the country, mostly from New Zealand and Japan.

You might well ask why two countries are both importing and exporting beef to and from each other.

“In Australia, of the 1,250 plant and 390 terrestrial animal species listed as threatened, 964 plants and 286 animals have deforestation and resulting habitat fragmentation or degradation listed as threats,” states the website of WWF Australia.

It claims that Eastern Australia ranks alongside the Amazon, Borneo, Congo Basin and other threatened tropical regions for the extent of forest at risk. 

Deforestation: how to end it

All of this has been happening despite agreements with the forestry and agricultural industries.

Deforestation makes it harder to achieve climate goals. It also reduces biodiversity.

Tree cover has several other benefits: it reduces drought and soil erosion, increases water resilience and keeps the temperature lower. Forests also are home to pollinators and pest predators that improve the productivity of nearby cropland.

One way to motivate farmers and landowners from leaving land intact is to offer financial support to protect woodland that is in their ownership, a model that has been introduced in the UK.

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  1. I’m ashamed that Australia has this bad record and really hope that we plant more trees than we cut down.