Tropical deforestation can seem a distant problem for most consumers. But the supply chains bringing food and other products from around the world can link our everyday consumption to the hostpots of forest loss, and the pressures driving the destruction of these species-rich ecosystems.

Besides the lost biodiversity, deforestation is also the second-biggest source of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the world. And some 80% of global deforestation is to make way for cropland and pasture for beef and dairy herds. An estimated 14.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are linked to livestock supply chains alone, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

A pair of new studies co-authored by SEI Senior Research Fellow Javier Godar examine how consumption – and global consumer markets – are linked to deforestation-related carbon emissions in the tropics.

Consumption and embedded emissions

The first, in an open-access paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, presents the results of a comprehensive survey of deforestation-related emissions across the tropics and subtropical regions. It finds that tropical deforestation accounted for 2.6 GtCO2 of net emissions per year in 2010–2014.

The study also uses a simple land-balance model to attribute forest loss to major land uses and crop groups. This reveals that more than half of the emissions were linked to production of cattle and oilseed products, chiefly soy and palm oil.

The paper then traces how the emissions travel along the supply chain “embedded” in traded products to reach consumers around the world. It does this using complementary physical trade and multiregional input-output models. It finds that a large share of the emissions, between 29% and 39% depending on the trade model, are embedded in agricultural and forestry commodities that are consumed outside the countries of production, mainly palm oil, soy, cattle (beef and leather) and timber products (including paper).

Europe and China emerge as the biggest consumer regions linked to tropical deforestation emissions. During the period studied, deforestation accounted for around a sixth of the carbon footprint of the average diet in the European Union.

According to Godar, the study’s unique contributions are in its pan-tropical scope and the fact that it takes into account emissions linked to both direct, physically traded flows and the consumption of more complex products in which the agricultural commodities are embedded, such as European meat products from soy-fed livestock.

“Perhaps the most striking result for me is that for many consumer countries, mostly developed countries, the tropical deforestation emissions embedded in the imported commodities they consume rival the emissions from their own agricultural sectors. This underscores the need to include extra-territorial emissions in national environmental accounting, and for consumer countries to support and finance anti-deforestation policies and more sustainable farming practices in producer countries”, he adds.

Consumption offsetting forest gains

The second study, published open access in Environmental Research Letters, takes a different angle, zooming in on the implications for efforts to reverse the global deforestation trend.

Specifically, it compares the tropical deforestation embedded in countries’ consumption with the level of net deforestation on their own territories. The study finds that in 2005–2013, 87% of “exported” deforestation went to countries that were either slowing deforestation rates or even increasing forest cover on their own territories, particularly in Europe and Asia (China, India and Russia).

This embedded deforestation offset, and in some cases even overwhelmed, the forest gains in these so-called late or post-forest transition countries. Looking just at countries that are increasing their forest cover, embedded deforestation equalled about one-third of the net forest gains. This underlines the fact that in a globalized world, achieving a global forest transition will be substantially more challenging than achieving national or regional transitions.

Both of the studies were linked to PRINCE, a project that explored new consumption-based indicators for Sweden. Florence Pendrill of Chalmers University led both studies, which also involved Martin Persson of Chalmers and Thomas Kastner of Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany. Another PRINCE team member, Richard Wood of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), collaborated on the first study.