Forests are essential for life on Earth. Three hundred million people worldwide live in forests and 1.6 billion depend directly on them for their livelihoods. Forests also provide habitat for a vast array of plants and animals, many of which are still undiscovered. They protect our watersheds. They inspire wonder and provide places for recreation. They supply the oxygen we need to survive. They provide the timber for products we use every day.
Forests are so much more than a collection of trees. Forests are home to more than three-quarters of the world’s life on land. These ecosystems are complex webs of organisms that include plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. Forests take many forms, depending on their latitude, local soil, rainfall and prevailing temperatures. Coniferous forests are dominated by cone-bearing trees, like pines and firs that can thrive in northern latitudes where these forests are often found. Many temperate forests house both coniferous and broad-leafed trees, such as oaks and elms, which can turn beautiful shades of orange, yellow and red in the fall.
The most biologically diverse and complex forests on earth are tropical rainforests, where rainfall is abundant and temperatures are always warm. Forests also play a critical role in mitigating climate change because they act as a carbon sink—soaking up carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere and contribute to ongoing changes in climate patterns.
But forests are being destroyed and degraded at alarming rates. Deforestation comes in many forms, including fires, clear-cutting for agriculture, ranching and development, unsustainable logging for timber, and degradation due to climate change. This impacts people’s livelihoods and threatens a wide range of plant and animal species. In 2020, the tropics lost more than 12 million hectares of tree cover. That’s roughly 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every single minute.
The Amazon, the planet’s largest rainforest, lost at least 17% of its forest cover in the last half century due to human activity. In Indonesia, the island of Sumatra has lost 85% of its forests—primarily due to conversion for oil palm and pulp plantations—and a similar level of destruction is taking place on the island of Borneo. Deforestation also undermines the important carbon sink function of forests. It is estimated that 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation.