The bottom line from the Food and Agriculture Organization's 2015 assessment of global forest resources: The state of the world's forests is better than it was.
The U.N. agency released the report this week ahead of the 14th World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa.
FAO Senior Forestry Officer Kenneth MacDicken is among those monitoring how the forests are faring.
“What we’ve seen is a continued forest loss in the tropics, not surprisingly," he says. "But the good news is that it’s happening at a rate that is half of what it was in the 1990s. So, the deforestation rate is slowing."
Forests are still being cut down to make room for agriculture, the FAO said. But the process is slowing.
Dynamics 'are improving'
"Overall, the forest area dynamics, you can say, are improving," MacDicken said.
He said more countries are sustainably managing their forests. As of 2014, 112 countries had national forest inventories.
The FAO report said, “Countries have more knowledge of their forest resources than ever before.”
However, between 1990 and 2015, there was a net loss of 129 million hectares of forest. That’s an area about the size of South Africa. The biggest forest loss occurred in Africa and South America.
The report said “challenges remain" and warned, “the existence of sound policies, legislation and regulation is not always coupled with effective incentives or enforcement … and that unsustainable forest practices and forest conversion to farmland clearly persist.”
The United Nations opens a summit September 25th to adopt 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals, intended to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals. Sustainable management of forests is expected to be included.
More people, more wood
The FAO forestry officer said he is concerned about recent human impact.
Since 1990, the world's population has grown by 37 percent. Agricultural food demand has increased by 40 percent.
At the same time, MacDicken said, forest areas have declined by 3.2 percent.
“We’re using more wood than ever before. We’re using 200 million cubic meters more wood now than we were in 1990," he said. "That wood has to come from somewhere. ... There’s probably no person on Earth that doesn’t use wood products in some form or another."
He said producing more wood must be balanced with protecting watersheds, biodiversity and forests’ role in absorbing carbon emissions.
MacDicken said while a direct impact of climate change on forests is hard to measure, indirect effects are being monitored. These include more large wildfires and destructive insects and diseases that are not killed off by milder winters.
The Mountain Pine Beetle, for example, has destroyed millions of hectares of trees over the years.
He added that the biggest challenge is actually not knowing what all the challenges are.
“Forests are complicated. They are complex, dynamic landscapes," he said.
"And whilst we learned an awful lot about them in the last 200 years or so, there’s still a lot that we don’t know. We don’t know how able they will be to respond to changes in environment. As populations, they can’t move very far, very fast. So, they can’t keep up in many cases to climate change," MacDicken said.