21 March has been proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as International Day of Forests. On this day, attention falls on the importance of forests of various types, and in various locations around the world. Countries are encouraged to engage in local, national and international efforts to organise activities promoting forests and drawing attention to the role forests play in the environment.
As explained on the International Day of Forests website, the importance of forests can hardly be overstated:
- Rain forests are the world’s biggest producer of oxygen, generating more than 40% of all the oxygen in the world.
- Beyond oxygen production, forests also regulate the balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity in the air.
- A tree releases almost 10 times more moisture into the atmosphere than the equivalent area of ocean.
- Forests protect and direct fresh water supply to rivers.
- Forests house more than 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.
- Thousands of forest plant species are used for medicinal and cultural purposes.
- Forests provide resilience to natural disasters, helping with soil and water conservation, avalanche control, desertification control and coastal protection.
- Mangrove forests provide a barrier against tsunamis, cyclones and hurricanes.
The loss of forests through deforestation can have a massive ecological impact:
- Deforestation tends to result in soil erosion, which in turn leads to rivers becoming silted, reducing the availability of clean water.
- It is estimated that deforestation could account for the loss of as many as 100 species of fauna and flora a day.
Perhaps most importantly, forests represent a critical component in addressing global climate change. Currently, the world’s forests are estimated to store almost 300 gigatonnes of carbon in their biomass. Deforestation and forest degradation not only erodes the carbon stores, but has already resulted in more than 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If deforestation can be halted, it can have a huge impact, not only ecological but also financial. According to the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006), halving greenhouse gas emissions can save the world more than $3.5 trillion between 2010 and 2050.
While deforestation feels like one of those ‘big issues’ that are almost too big to do something about as an individual, this needn’t be the case. We can all do our bit, even if it’s something as small as talking about the issue, planting a tree, or joining/supporting a local forest rejuvenation group or initiative. Just as a massive forest grows from tiny, individual trees, huge impacts can flow from humble, individual actions.