Published on Data Blog

Turning to environmental data to understand forest losses and protected areas

Environmental resources differ from financial, human, and capital resources in a significant way – they are exhaustible.  And given the ever growing dependence on natural resources, this is an area that developing countries take seriously.

What have governments worldwide done to make certain that natural resources are protected?

How are they ensuring that their progress is sustainable and not just a windfall gain?

To answer these and other related questions, let's turn our attention to the Little Green Data Book 2014 (PDF), which draws from the World Development Indicators 2014 Environment section.

The global decline in forest cover
Forests cover about one-third of all land worldwide. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Earth's forest area was about 50 million square kilometers. This has since shrunk to about 40 million square kilometers.  Most of this decline was caused by the growing demand for forest and paper products, as well as for agricultural land use.

June 5 is the United Nation's World Environment Day, a day to encourage worldwide awareness and action for the environment.

Forest area is defined as land spanning more than 0.005 square kilometers with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10% or with trees able to reach these thresholds in situ. In some places, forest area has slightly expanded, either through planting or natural processes. As a result, the global average annual deforestation fell from .18% (1990-2000) to .11% (2000-2011).

The highest concentration of forest loss is found in developing countries, specifically in Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Figure 1.

In comparison with other regions, the Latin America and Caribbean region has the largest share of forest areas, holding about one quarter of the earth's forest resources. At the same time, the region has lost some 990,000 square kilometers – about 11% of its forest area – between 1990 and 2011. In Sub-Saharan Africa, firewood harvesting and charcoal production are the major drivers of forest loss. High-income countries, despite the many heavy industries (production of iron, ships, large manufactured goods, machinery, and the like), have actually gained about 177,000 square kilometers of forest area since 1990.

Protected areas – both terrestrial and marine – are critical for biodiversity efforts.

Some gains in protected terrestrial and marine areas
Deforestation, especially in the tropics, contributes 10% - 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Protecting forests, as well as terrestrial and marine areas, continues to help safeguard plants, marine species, and animal habitats while reducing threats to biodiversity.  Many countries have designated a share of their land and marine areas as protected areas to preserve valuable habitats and the plant and animal species that live there. By 2012, more than 14% of the world's land area and about 10% of its territorial waters had been protected. Among developing regions, Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa have the largest areas of protected land.

Figure 2.

The number of threatened species (mammals, birds, fish, and higher plants) represents an important measure of the immediate need for conservation.  Global analyses of the status of threatened species have been conducted for few groups of organisms.  More analyses focused on protecting key ecosystems and reducing overharvesting and habitat destruction could lead the way to positive gains for a number of species.

ImageBelow are the indicators we used in this blog post, along with their codes.  You may also browse the World Development Indicators 2014, or go directly to the online tables to view this data. And please consider following us on Twitter at @worldbankdata for data news and updates on the most widely followed measures of the global economy and our Open Data initiative.

Indicators and codes used in this post:


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