Current Affairs

‘Megatrends’ to affect forests over the coming decade’

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  • Published
    10th Dec, 2020
  • Context

    Researchers from academic, governmental and international organisations have identified five large-scale ‘megatrends’ that are likely to have a large impact on forests and forest communities over the coming decade.

  • Background

    • Around the world, 1.6 billion people live within 5km of a forest, and millions rely on them for their livelihoods, especially in poorer countries.
    • The fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement offers a moment to reflect on progress towards global climate goals.
    • They are also home to much of the world’s biodiversity and regulate key aspects of the carbon cycle.
    • In short, forests are vital in global and national efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss and eradicate hunger and poverty.
    • When it comes to protecting the world’s forests, there has been little progress.
  • Analysis

    What are the identified trends?

    The five megatrends revealed by the research are:

    Forest mega-disturbances

    • Droughts and excessive precipitation are increasing forests’ susceptibility to diseases and human-induced wildfires and floods.
    • This is leading to defoliation, tree mortality and declines in forest productivity at unprecedented scales, with increasing evidence that forest disturbance can result in the emergence of diseases with the ability to spread globally.
    • Suggestion: Policy responses to these disturbances will require balancing a range of mitigation and adaptation efforts – whilst opportunities and challenges are likely to arise from efforts to align forest conservation and restoration with other sustainability priorities, such as poverty alleviation.

    Changing rural demographics

    • Increased migration to urban areas is causing an unprecedented exodus among forest-reliant communities.
    • The effects of these demographic shifts, including forest resurgence on formerly agricultural lands and participation in decision-making, are not well understood.
    • While population shift could result in opportunities for effective forest conservation, they can also lead to deforestation as greater urban demand and large industrial projects are created.

    The rise of the middle class

    • By 2030 the middle class in low- and middle-income countries will grow to almost 5bn people – around 50% of the global population.
    • The growth in demand that this creates will increase pressure on land and other resources.
    • Growing consumption and demand of commodities has already seen large scale corporate-led land acquisitions for industrial production of cattle, soy and palm oil in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
    • Between 2001-2015, 27% of forest disturbance was attributed to commodity-driven deforestation.
    • Further growth in demand and continuing culture of consumerism will alter local and global consumption patterns, with potentially severe effects on deforestation rates, emissions, wildlife populations, ecosystem services and rural communities.

    Use of digital technologies

    • Access to digital communication technology has grown exponentially in recent years, with a sevenfold increase in internet and mobile cellular use since 2000.
    • The majority of this growth has come from outside industrialised countries and is likely to have a transformational impact on the forest sector.
    • Technologies that collect and disseminate data are increasingly accurate and easy-to-use, including land mapping tools, real-time satellite data and crowd-sourced data.
    • Although they can be accessed by those involved in an illicit activity such as logging and mining, these technologies also provide opportunities.
    • Increasingly available data can benefit a wide range of forest sector stakeholders including policymakers, oversight bodies, non-governmental actors, managers and local communities.
    • New technologies are already supporting the surveillance and certification of global production networks, which is aiding regulatory control of forest-based products and people threatening forests.

    Infrastructure development

    • Large scale infrastructure projects such as China’s Belt and Road initiative are likely to have transformational impacts on forests and rural communities.
    • To accommodate the demand for energy, natural resources and transport, many countries have planned ambitious infrastructure growth.
    • By 2050, there is expected to be at least 25 million km of new roads globally to help facilitate commodity flow between transport hubs; governments in the Amazon basin alone are developing 246 new hydroelectric dams, and illegal mining activities are expanding rapidly across the globe.
    • This can lead to forest loss, displaces people, disrupts livelihoods and provokes social conflicts as communities lose access to land and resources.
  • Status of forest area

    • Forest ecosystems are a critical component of the world’s biodiversity as many forests are more bio-diverse than other ecosystems.
    • Coverage area: Forests cover 31 percent of the global land area. Approximately half the forest area is relatively intact, and more than one-third is primary forest (i.e. naturally regenerated forests of native species, where there are no visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed).
    • Total area: The total forest area is 4.06 billion hectares or approximately 5 000m2 (or 50 x 100m) per person, but forests are not equally distributed around the globe.
    • More than half of the world’s forests are found in only five countries (the Russian Federation, Brazil, Canada, the United States of America and China) and two-thirds (66 percent) of forests are found in ten countries.
    • Rate of deforestation: Between 2015 and 2020, the rate of deforestation was estimated at 10 million hectares per year, down from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s.
      • The area of primary forest worldwide has decreased by over 80 million hectares since 1990.

    Forest in India

    • India is home to a diverse range of forests—moist and dry tropical forests, temperate and subtropical montane forests, alpine forests and scrubs forests.
    • It is one of the 17 “mega-diverse” countries and is home to 8% of the world’s known flora and fauna.
    • Besides, Indian forests support the livelihood of nearly 275 million people, who are dependent on forests for food, fuelwood, fodder and other forest products.
    • Forest cover change data from FSI between 2009 and 2017 shows an increase in the forest of 2 million hectares. Increases occurred in India’s densest forests (greater than 70% canopy cover) and open forests (between 10% and 40% canopy cover), with slight decreases seen in moderately dense forests (between 40% and 70% canopy cover).
    • India has made several commitments to restoring deforested and degraded landscapes including the Bonn Challengenationally determined contribution and several domestic targets.
      • The Government of Germany and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) launched the voluntary Bonn Challenge in 2011 with the target of restoring 150 million hectares (mha) of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2020 and 350 mha by 2030.
        • India joined the Bonn Challenge in 2015 with a pledge to restore 21 mha of degraded and deforested land.
        • This was raised to the target of 26 mha by 2030 during the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification Conference held in Delhi in September 2019.
  • What about Forest species and genetic diversity?

    • It is not only the trees that make a forest but the many different species of plants and animals that reside in the soil, under storey and canopy.
    • Estimates of the total number of species on Earth range from 3 million to 100 million (May 2010).
    • Although it is widely reported that forests harbour 80 percent of terrestrial plants and animals, such a precise estimate is unlikely to be accurate given the changing state of knowledge of planetary biodiversity.
    • While trees are the defining component of forests and their diversity can indicate overall diversity, there are many other ways to determine the biodiversity significance of forests.
    • As of December 2019, a total of 20,334 tree species had been included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2019), of which 8,056 were assessed as globally threatened (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable).
    • More than 1,400 tree species are assessed as critically endangered and in urgent need of conservation action.

    Forest species diversity: Other forest plants, animals, and fungi



    • About 391 000 species of vascular plants are known to science of which about 94 percent are flowering plants.
    • Of these, 21 percent are likely threatened by extinction.
    • Some 60 percent of the total are found in tropical forests.



    • Some 144 000 species of fungi have been named and classified so far.
    • However, it is estimated that the vast majority (over 93 percent) of fungal species are currently unknown to science, indicating that the total number of fungal species on Earth is somewhere between 2.2 and 3.8 million.

    Invertebrate species


    • Some 1.3 million species of invertebrates have been described.
    • However, many more exist, with some estimates ranging from 5 million to 10 million species.
    • Most are insects, and the vast majority live in forests.

    Vertebrate species


    • Close to 70 000 vertebrate species are known and described (IUCN).
    • Of these, forests provide habitats for almost 5 000 amphibian species (80 percent of all known species), close to 7 500 bird species (75 percent of all birds) and more than 3 700 different mammals (68 percent of all species)
  • What needs to be done?

    • Integration of knowledge for detailed understanding: The world community needs to place a greater emphasis on the causes that affect forest livelihoods, and integrating knowledge from different regions on various time scales for a more detailed understanding.
    • Better defending of forests: It is also vital to rethink how regulators, rural communities and civil society can better defend forests and local livelihoods using digital monitoring platforms, handheld devices, drones and other technologies.
    • Collaborative partnership: Strengthening of existing collaborations between researchers, local communities and policymakers as well as the development of new types of partnerships with public and private stakeholders is also need of the moment.
    • Understanding the dynamics: Understanding the larger-scale dynamics is vital to support not only the critical role of forests in meeting livelihood aspirations locally but also a range of other sustainability challenges globally.
  • Way forward

    The findings call for an increase in case study research within these five trends, a deeper exploration of the trends over time and space, and a greater focus on the causes of social and environmental changes.

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