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Deforestation and climate change: what's the link?

Climate change is a global concern which challenges each and every one of us. Thankfully, more and more people are actively addressing the implications of climate change, and want to make a difference. But what do we mean by deforestation and climate change? What is the relationship between them? And how can you help?

What is climate change?

Global warming is measured as the mean annual average temperature of the Earth’s surface. It’s happening because greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas, trap more of the sun’s energy in the atmosphere.

Scientists have found that global warming is causing climate change. Those rising greenhouse gas levels change air flows at a global scale. This leads to unpredictable weather such as storms, flooding and drought. Melting polar and glacier ice is also adding cooler water to the oceans. This in turn is causing shifts in currents that can have major effects on the weather.

Unpredictable and extreme weather events are being linked with climate change (Photo: Phil Lockwood/WTML)
Unpredictable and extreme weather events are being linked with climate change (Photo: Phil Lockwood/WTML)

What is deforestation?

Deforestation is an overall loss in the total area of woodland. We hear about it most in other parts of the world, like the Amazon, Canada and Indonesia. It’s often driven as much by the alternative land use of cleared land as it is by the value of the timber. Vast areas of the world’s forests have been destroyed to make way for:

  • coffee, soy and palm oil plantations
  • the cattle ranches that produce the world’s supply of beef burgers.


How deforestation affects climate change

Forests store enormous quantities of carbon. This is captured from carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) in the air and turned into the structure of the tree. Microorganisms in the soil draw even more carbon into the forest floor – there is more carbon below ground than above. Left undisturbed, this carbon is safely locked away. But when the trees are cut down (and often burned) the carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

People often associate deforestation with other parts of the world but it's happening here in the UK too (Photo: WTML)
People often associate deforestation with other parts of the world but it's happening here in the UK too (Photo: WTML)

As well as storing carbon, forests also create their own weather systems. The trees and other vegetation circulate water vapour to create clouds and rain. Taking the trees away also takes away those weather systems, which can lead to desertification - 6000 years ago the Sahara was a tropical jungle! Around the world, we can already see examples of where this has happened. This highlights the need to stop cutting old growth forests.

Deforestation in the UK

Surprising as it might sound, deforestation can and does happen right here in the UK. We know of at least 800 woods that are currently under threat, usually from development. The rate of planted new woods is seriously low right now. The average in England has totalled just 1,000 hectares in recent years. That means there’s a very real prospect that we’re in a state of deforestation. And the UK has an internationally legally binding commitment not to do that!

We need more new woods and trees. They can do so much more than lock up carbon, also:

  • reducing flood risk and soil erosion
  • offering shade and shelter for livestock
  • creating habitat for wildlife including pollinating insects
  • even providing food for farm animals.
The HS2 rail project is the biggest single development threat to ancient woodland right now. Whitmore Wood in Staffordshire is one of 108 ancient woods threatened with loss or damage (Photo: Philip Formby/WTML)
The HS2 rail project is the biggest single development threat to ancient woodland right now. Whitmore Wood in Staffordshire is one of 108 ancient woods threatened with loss or damage (Photo: Philip Formby/WTML)

How you can help

By joining the Woodland Trust’s growing membership you can help to stop deforestation in the UK. You’ll be contributing to the fight to save threatened woodland and our beautiful, irreplaceable ancient woods. You’ll also be helping us to create new woods that will turn down the heat on global warming.

Help us to plant and protect our precious woods and trees

Become a member for as little as 13p a day