Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Deforestation--Measuring Production or Consumption

Researchers Patrick Meyfroidt, Thomas Rubel, and Eric Lambin have an important new study on deforestation published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Summarized here, Meyfroidt, et al show that developing world nations that have cut domestic deforestation to acceptable levels end up relying on neighboring nations to make up the difference in their forest products consumption. It suggests that focusing on deforestation in individual countries matters little if nations like Burma, Brazil, and Indonesia are going to engage in massive legal and illegal timber trading.

"For every 100 acres of reforestation in these five countries, they imported the equivalent of 74 acres of forest products," said Meyfroidt, a postdoctoral researcher at Louvain and lead author of the study. "Taking into account their exports of agricultural products, the net balance amounted to 22 acres of land used in other countries."

During the past five years, the net land-use displacement increased to 52 acres of imported agricultural or forestry products for every 100 acres reforested, he added. That is, for every acre of reforested land, a half-acre was used elsewhere, including countries like Brazil and Indonesia, which together accounted for 61 percent of deforestation in the humid tropics between 2000 and 2005.

I'd go a step farther here. Measuring forest product production is far less helpful in determining forestation rates than measuring consumption. But we rarely measure consumption as a negative indicator in any sort of environmental issue. It doesn't much matter if Vietnam is saving its trees if it's desire for wood products continues to rise. That wood has to come from somewhere. And unless it is coming from some sort of sustainable forestry, something that has hardly been achieved in the United States, not to mention southeast Asia, does it really matter whether it is from Vietnam or Burma or Indonesia?

Another problem with measuring production over consumption is that it shifts blame from the world's rich nations to the developing world. It's really easy to talk about Brazil cutting down the Amazon. Meanwhile, let me go buy that new piece of tropical wood furniture. Where we do measure consumption, it's entirely in the goal of pushing for using more wood products. For example, housing starts remain a central indicator of economic growth. Houses are made of wood. Where do we think it comes from?

While valuable as it is, I'm not a study like Meyfroidt's does all it could. Without placing consumption over production as the point of analysis, we aren't going to get at the root causes of deforestation. Vietnam may have a growing demand for timber products that is supplied locally. But, like just about everything else short of betel nuts, its demand for wood falls eons short of that of the United States, Japan, and western Europe. These nations are the real despoilers of the planet. Until we start looking to reduce consumption rates, trees are going to be felled at unsustainable rates around the globe.