The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been monitoring the world’s forests at five- to 10-year intervals since 1946. The FAO’s 2020 global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) presents a comprehensive view of the world’s forests and the ways in which this important resource changed between 1990 and 2020. The data from 236 countries were collected using commonly agreed upon terms and definitions through a transparent, traceable reporting process and a well-established network of officially nominated national representatives. These include the USDA Forest Service and Natural Resources Canada.
Since 1990, there has been a net loss of 440 million acres of forests globally, an area larger than the entire state of Alaska. A net change in forest area is the sum of all forest losses (deforestation) and all forest gains (forest expansion) in a given period. FAO defines deforestation as the conversion of forest to other land uses, regardless of whether it is human-induced. FAO specifically excludes from its definition areas where trees have been removed by harvesting or logging because the forest is expected to regenerate naturally or with the aid of sustainable forestry practices.
In contrast, despite deforestation by urban development, fire, insects and other causes, total forest area in the US actually increased and forest area in Canada has remained stable since 1990. This is due in great part to sustainable forest management practices implemented by the North American paper and forest products industry, the highest percentage of certified forests (nearly 50%) in the world, and laws and regulations aimed at protecting forest resources.
The world has a total forest area of around 10 billion acres or 31% of total land area. More than half (54%) of these forests are in just five countries – the Russian Federation, Brazil, Canada, the US and China.
Africa had the largest annual rate of net forest loss in 2010–2020 at 9.6 million acres, followed by South America, at 6.4 million acres.
While the net loss of 440 million acres of forest is troubling, there is some improvement in the global numbers. The rate of net forest loss decreased substantially over the period 1990–2020 due to a reduction in deforestation in some countries, plus increases in forest area in others through afforestation (establishing forest where none existed previously) and the natural expansion of forests. The annual rate of net forest loss declined from 19.2 million acres in 1990–2000 to 12.8 million acres in 2000–2010 and 11.6 million acres in 2010–2020.
While an estimated 1.04 billion acres of forest have been lost worldwide to deforestation since 1990, the rate of deforestation also declined substantially. Between 2015 and 2020, the annual global rate of deforestation was estimated at around 25 million acres, down from 30 million acres between 2010 and 2015.
Globally, 54% of forests have long-term forest management plans. FAO defines forest management as the process of planning and implementing practices for the stewardship and use of forests targeted at specific environmental, economic, social and cultural objectives. Around 96% of forestlands in Europe have management plans, 64% in Asia, less than 25% in Africa and only 17% in South America.
Data from the US and Canada
According to the 2020 FRA, the US and Canada account for 8% and 9%, respectively, of the world’s total forest area.
In the US, total forest area increased by 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020, which averages out to the equivalent of around 1,200 NFL football fields every day. Canada’s total forest area remained relatively stable over the 30-year assessment period at approximately 857 million acres.
Approximately 59% of forestlands in North America have long-term forest management plans.
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