One-Fourth of Global Forest Loss Permanent: Deforestation Is Not Slowing Down

Map of Deforestation 2001-2015

Using Google Earth images, researchers developed model mapping global drivers of forest loss. More than a fourth of global forest loss from 2001 to 2015 is permanent deforestation from commodity-driven agriculture, meaning these areas likely will not be forested again. The rate of commodity-driven deforestation has not slowed down despite global efforts.

SCOTTSDALE, AZ. – More than a fourth of global forest loss from 2001 to 2015 can be primarily attributed to permanent land-use change for commodity agriculture – meaning these areas likely will not be forested again – according to a new study published today in Science, one of the world’s top academic journals.

The study was conducted by reseachers at The Sustainability Consortium, a global organization jointly administered by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University, the World Resources Institute, a global research organization, and the University of Maryland.

“Although many changes to tree cover were temporary, such as when a forest recovered from a wildfire or when timber farms were replanted, patterns seen in the imagery showed that a significant proportion of global forests are not growing back,” said Philip Curtis, consultant for The Sustainability Consortium and the study’s lead author.

Copyright: The Sustainability Consortium® | ©2018 Arizona State University and University of Arkansas
Infographic design by Giada Mannino, Senior Designer, The Sustainability Consortium

The authors used nearly 4,700 satellite images to train a computer model to identify unique patterns that revealed the causes of recent tree cover loss. Using a 10 by 10-kilometer grid for the entire globe, the computer model helped identify the most likely causes of forest disturbance – commodity production, forestry, shifting agriculture, wildfire and urbanization.

The permanent conversion of forest to non-forest land use for commodity production constituted 27 percent of global tree-cover loss. This driver was attributed predominantly to agriculture, especially palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia. Less than 1 percent of this category was mining and energy production and infrastructure. Areas that experienced this type of commodity-driven deforestation were large swaths of South America – expanding beyond the Amazon region – areas of the U. S. Central Plains, the rangeland of eastern Australia and scattered areas of west and central Africa.

Despite global attention to the problem and a commitment by hundreds of companies to address it via their supply chains, there has been no reduction in deforestation over the past 15 years, the researchers found. Their analysis showed that deforestation, or permanent forest loss, has shifted geographically from Brazil to Southeast Asia, but has not slowed down.

“Since 2010, leaders of nearly 450 companies signed commitments to achieve zero deforestation in their supply chains by 2020,” Slay said. “Consumers are demanding it, and companies know it is the socially responsible thing to do. Yet companies find it difficult to determine the source of their supply beyond the location of their direct supplier. Our findings, now incorporated into the Consortium’s commodity mapping tool, will help companies predict where agriculture and wood fiber products are sourced and what deforestation risk is present.”

The next three drivers of global tree-cover loss were forestry at 26 percent, shifting agriculture at 24 percent and wildfires at 23 percent. Shifting agriculture was defined as small- to medium-scale forest and shrubland conversion for agriculture that was later abandoned and followed by subsequent forest regrowth. In fact, all three of these categories were critical in that forest regrowth had already happened within the study period or was likely to happen in the near future. The researchers defined forestry as large-scale forest operations occurring within managed forests and tree plantations with regrowth after harvesting. With wildfires, the researchers found no visible human conversion to agriculture following burns. Deforestation due to urban development accounted for roughly one half of 1 percent and occurred mostly in the eastern United States.

The study showed drivers of deforestation varied regionally. Wildfires and managed forestry operations occurred primarily in temperate and boreal forests. Boreal ecosystems are found in northern latitudes. Shifting agriculture and commodity-driven deforestation dominated in tropical regions. Wildfires occurred primarily in North America and Russia.

Curtis, former lead researcher of The Sustainability Consortium’s commodity mapping program, worked with Christy Slay, the Consortium’s director of technical alignment; Nancy Harris, forest program research manager at the World Resources Institute; and Alexandra Tyukavina and Matthew Hansen, remote sensing scientists with the Global Land Analysis & Discovery group at the University of Maryland. Their study was to help corporations identify the source of wood fiber products and to pinpoint the location of permanent deforestation due to agriculture.

For the purposes of this study, deforestation was defined as permanent forest loss due to commodity production, primarily commodity-driven agriculture, and urbanization. Tree-cover loss due to forestry operations, shifting agriculture and wildfires were not considered permanent deforestation.

The study’s findings will be publicly available on Global Forest Watch, the leading global forest monitoring tool run by the World Resources Institute. At this site, an interactive map will now show geo-located drivers of loss related to tree-cover loss dating back to 2001.

“This study not only identifies where deforestation is occurring, it perhaps more importantly tells us where forest loss is not deforestation,” said Harris of the World Resources Institute. “Beyond seeing where and when tree cover loss has happened, people can now use Global Forest Watch to see why loss has occurred.”

About The Sustainability Consortium
The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) is a global organization transforming the consumer goods industry to deliver more sustainable consumer products. We are dedicated to improving the sustainability of consumer products. Our members and partners include manufacturers, retailers, suppliers, service providers, NGOs, civil society organizations, governmental agencies and academics. Each member brings valuable perspectives and expertise. TSC convenes our diverse stakeholders to work collaboratively to build science-based decision tools and solutions that address sustainability issues that are materially important throughout a product’s supply chain and lifecycle. TSC also offers a portfolio of services to help drive effective implementation. The Sustainability Consortium has more than 100 members and there are over 2,000 users of TSC tools worldwide; it convenes more than 200 global organizations annually over an average of 75 networking opportunities. Formed in 2009, TSC is jointly administered by Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas. It also has a European office at Wageningen University and Research, and a Chinese office in Tianjin, China. For more information visit


Erika Ferrin, director of marketing, communication and development
The Sustainability Consortium