A (Tree) Growth Mindset: How Can we Combat the Effects of Deforestation?

by Lizzie Avila

Flickr // crustmania

Defining Deforestation

A clearing of trees the size of 27 soccer fields is cut down every minute around the world 1, or about two Stanford size fields every two hours 1. This is the astronomical rate that deforestation occurs at, and continues to occur at. With this continuous regression, Earth is approaching an ecological tipping point where the damage done will be irreversible.

So, what exactly is deforestation, and why does an act so destructive occur so frequently?

Deforestation is an unsustainable act of cutting down trees for resources. These resources, or needs, can be anything from agriculture, to paper products, to infrastructure.

The consumer-driven causes of deforestation

Agriculture is by far the largest contributor to deforestation, responsible for up to 80% 2. Land is not only deforested to grow crops or house animals, but also for production, and to farm the soy which feeds the animals. This agriculture is driven by a massive amount of consumer demand for these products, especially meat. The average American consumes 222.2 lbs of meat per year, way ahead of any other country in the world 3. But our hunger for meat is not only affecting the US, because it’s imported from countries around the world, which spreads the deforestation to forests everywhere.

Infrastructure and paper products are also significant contributors to deforestation. Logging for things we could make reusable or paperless like paper towels or homework assignments attributes unnecessarily to deforestation. Simultaneously, our population is constantly increasing and we are building in a way that can’t sustain our own growth.

Effects that stretch further than forests

What effects do these things have on our planet? The ~7 billion trees we cut down every year is the equivalent of adding 33 million cars to our roads 4. This is because our trees are carbon sponges, turning the CO 2 we emit into breathable O 2. When we decrease the amount of these trees, the amount of CO 2 recycled is less, leading to eventual climate warming and a decrease in our atmospheric ozone. Deforestation also has an effect on the pH of soil, decreasing its fertility and making it difficult to grow new forests on this land 5.Unfortunately, cutting down trees doesn’t only affect the land, it also stretches to our oceans, as seen through ocean acidification. The CO 2 that isn’t being absorbed by the trees is being dissolved into the water, lowering the pH. Logging in areas near water can also push acidic soil into the waters. This increase in acid is causing some parts of marine life to dissolve, like the shells of sea snails. Corals are being bleached and unable to grow their skeletons because of this pH change. Unfortunately, nothing can be done to stop ocean acidification besides just decreasing our carbon emissions 7, which has proven to be a difficult task for the U.S.

Solutions for a better future

If these problems seem impossible to solve, there’s no need to lose hope. While deforestation is a monumental problem, there are solutions that can be integrated on three different levels to alleviate the situation.

Alternative woods

The first is decreasing your use of wood and paper products as much as you can. By digitizing files, work, and books, using real plates and towels instead of paper, and finding better alternative paper sources, we can all do our part in aiding in deforestation. A great alternative is hemp paper, which can be recycled 8 times as much as paper without losing its integrity. One acre of hemp paper can also yield just as much paper products as four acres of trees, and can be harvested every 4 months, making it more sustainable than forests 7. Hemp takes less water to grow, and is resilient against harsh weather, leading to a higher overall yield 8. Still, although hemp has been legalized to grow federally, we still run into problems with growing hemp for paper. One problem is that the entire plant cannot be used, another is that hemp has a higher risk of damage from birds and wildlife. But the biggest problem with hemp is that it is more expensive to turn it from plant to product, and we don’t have enough machinery in the U.S. to produce it at the magnitude it is demanded at.

Less meat leads to more trees

Another personal aspect of accountability comes in recognizing how the meat that we eat contributes to deforestation. Meatless Mondays is an innovative and fairly easy option to decrease your contribution without completely changing your lifestyle. If every student on Stanford’s campus partook in Meatless Mondays, it would save 26 acres of land and 10 million gallons of water each week.

Chemical Conversions

To learn more about potential solutions for our increasing CO 2 emissions, I spoke with Dr. Matt Kanan, an Assistant Professor in the Chemistry Department at Stanford University. His lab’s focus is research in synthetic chemistry that uses both electrochemical and chemical methods to convert CO 2 to fuel. His electrochemical methods use catalysts and electricity to convert CO 2. His chemical methods of conversion are unusual in the fact that they are solvent-free reactions, which allowed his team to discover new properties of different molecules that allowed them to react with CO 2. One of his reactions combines CO 2 and waste biomass (anything that cannot be used as a food source, like corn cobs or grass) to make a monomer for plastic. This reaction is carbon negative, meaning that it is removing CO 2 rather than adding it. When asked about the roadblocks of implementing technology like this on an industrial scale, Dr. Kanan explained that the only problem is really in the “know-how.” We have the manufacturing capabilities to support these new technologies, we just don’t have a perfect design yet to make them efficient on such a large scale. Dr. Kanan emphasized though that, while this is a powerful method of CO 2 conversion for other emissions of CO 2, it is NOT a sufficient enough solution to combat deforestation. This is because, as he explained, cutting down trees isn’t just reducing the amount of CO 2 that is recycled in photosynthesis. It is also unearthing centuries of carbon deposits in the ground and releasing it into the air. This means that the only surefire way to combat these carbons in the earth being released is to end deforestation where it’s at.

Governmental obstacles

Driving change towards the end of deforestation hits a lot of roadblocks, especially regarding government inaction. Governments tend to have a hands-off approach when it comes to regulating large corporations and their contributions to deforestation. In fact, only 8% of companies that are considered ‘at-risk’ for deforestation hold ‘zero deforestation policies’, meaning that they will not log unsustainably for any reason 9. Overcoming these government setbacks involves keeping up with current legislature that proposes solutions for corporate deforestation, and writing to your representatives about issues you care about.

Moving forward

At the end of the day, deforestation is a serious, but solvable problem that we all need to take steps towards fixing if we want to preserve our Earth. As we move towards solutions for a fruitful future, it is important to keep in mind that we can’t just view these as “trendy” things to do, like buying a reusable straw. Our actions must be purposeful and real, because we don’t have another ozone to damage, another climate to change, or more soil to harm.

Sources:

1: “Deforestation and Forest Degradation | Threats | WWF.” World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/threats/deforestation-and-forest-degradation. Accessed 27 Nov. 2019.

2: Butler, Rhett. “Agriculture Causes 80% of Tropical Deforestation.” Mongabay, 27 Sept. 2012, news.mongabay.com/2012/09/agriculture-causes-80-of-tropical-deforestation.

3: Durisin, Megan. “Americans’ Meat Consumption Set to Hit a Record in 2018.” The Seattle Times, 2 Jan. 2018, www.seattletimes.com/business/americans-meat-consumption-set-to-hit-a-record-in-2018.

4: (2016). State of the World’s Forests,. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

5: Kassa, Henok. “Impact of Deforestation on Soil Fertility, Soil Carbon and Nitrogen Stocks: The Case of the Gacheb Catchment in the White Nile Basin, Ethiopia.” Science Direct, 1 Sept. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880917302773.

6: Osterloff, Emily. “What Is Ocean Acidification?” Natural History Museum, 24 Oct. 2017, www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-ocean-acidification.html.

7: Diffendarfer, Joel. “Hemp VS Trees: One Billion Reasons To Use Hemp Instead.” Soapboxie, 27 Feb. 2019, soapboxie.com/social-issues/Hemp-VS-Trees-One-Billion-Reasons-To-Use-Hemp-Instead.

8: Silverberg, David. “New Heights but No High – Why Hemp Sales Are Soaring.” BBC, 7 Mar. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/business-47400789.9: Rothrock, Philip. “Targeting Zero Deforestation – Forest Trends.” Forest Trends, 18 July 2019, www.forest-trends.org/publications/targeting-zero-deforestation.

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