Visualization of world wheat production by country (2000-2020)

Visualize the loss of forests around the world since the Ice Age

What part of the Earth was once covered in forests and what part is covered today?

The effects of deforestation on the climate are already being felt and are being felt, and these impacts are expected to increase over time. That’s why more than 100 world leaders pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 at the COP26 climate summit.

As today’s chart using data from Our World in Data shows, the world’s forests have been declining since the last Ice Age at an increasingly rapid rate.

Earth’s surface: 10,000 years ago

To properly examine the deforestation situation, it is useful to understand the total available surface of the Earth. After all, our world can seem huge when looking at maps or globes. But big 51 billion hectares of the total surface of the Earth, more than 70% is occupied by the oceans.

What remains is 14.9 billion hectares of land, not all of which is habitable. This is how the land was allocated 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age and before the rise of human civilizations.

Uninhabitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):

  • barren land (19% or 2.8 billion hectares): includes deserts, salt flats, exposed rocks and dunes
  • ice cream parlors (10% or 1.5 billion hectares) — The vast majority concentrated in Antarctica

Habitable Earth on Earth (10,000 years ago):

  • Forest (57% or 6 billion hectares): includes tropical, temperate and boreal forests
  • Meadow (42% or 4.6 billion hectares) — Wild grasslands and shrubs
  • Fresh water (1% or

By 2018, forests had shrunk to only 4 billion hectares. What happened?

Forests and grasslands recede for agriculture

Once humans figured out how to grow plants and livestock for regular food sources, they needed land to use.

For centuries, the loss of greenery has been relatively slow. By 1800, the world had lost 700 million hectares of forest and grassland, replaced by approximately 900 million hectares land for grazing animals and 400 million hectares for crops.

But the industrialization of the 1800s quickly accelerated the process.

Percentage of habitable land 1700 1800 1900 1950 2018
Forest 52% 50% 48% 44% 38%
Meadow 38% 36% 27% 12% 14%
Pasture 6% 9% 16% 31% 31%
Harvests 3% 4% 8% 12% 15%
Fresh water 1% 1% 1% 1% 1%
Urban 1%

While half of Earth’s forest loss occurred 10,000 years ago up to 1900, the other half or 1.1 billion hectares have been lost since 1900. Some of this loss, about 100 million hectares, occurred during the most recent period from 2000 to 2018.

The biggest culprit?

Although urban land use has increased rapidly, it still pales in comparison to the 31% of habitable land now used for cattle grazing. Most of this land came first from reclaimed grasslands, but some forests were also cleared along the way.

Where will the food come from?

Countries that commit to stopping deforestation have two major hurdles to overcome: financial and survival.

First, many businesses, jobs and economies depend on the production and marketing of goods made from forests, such as timber.

But more importantly, the world’s increasing land use for crops and agriculture reflects our rapidly growing population. In 1900, the world’s population was barely 1.6 billion people. By 2021, it had exceeded 7.9 billionwith hundreds of millions of people still affected by food shortages every day.

How can you feed so many people without needing more land? The hugely large footprint of meat makes prioritizing crops more attractive, and the search for alternatives like lab-grown meat and preventing pasture erosion is ongoing.

As the effects of climate change become increasingly felt, it is likely that countries, businesses and people will need to adopt many different solutions at once.

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