Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Protecting Forest Products & Services: Fuel, Lumber and Paper

As of 2000, the forested area of the earth covered some 3.9 billion hectares, or roughly 30 percent of the earth's land surface, but each year world tree cover is shrinking. Between 1990 and 2000, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported a net loss of 94 million hectares. The developing countries lost 130 million hectares and the industrial countries gained 36 million hectares. The gains were largely from the conversion of abandoned agricultural land to forest.5 

While farmland was returning to forests in industrial countries, forests in developing countries were being turned into farmland, grazing land, and wasteland. The 13 million hectares of forested area lost in developing countries each year is equal to 0.65 percent of their forested area. Stated otherwise, every three years, developing countries lose 2 percent of their forestland.6 

These FAO estimates of forest loss are substantial, yet even they fall short of conveying the full extent of deforestation. The FAO definition of forest is tree crown cover of more than 10 percent of an areaa threshold that includes as forest land what is otherwise sometimes classified as tundra, savanna, scrubland, or even desert. Another shortcoming of the FAO data is that harvested areas count as forest until they have been permanently converted to another use. Thus it may appear that the global rate of deforestation is slowing, but recent satellite images and country reports reveal that the opposite is true.7 

Historically, forests were managed by cutting selectively, removing only mature, highly valued trees. Under this system the forested area was remarkably stable, shrinking only when land was converted to agriculture or other nonforest uses. In recent decades, with new logging technologies and massive machines that can mow forests the way farmers mow hay, clearcutting has become much more economical as a harvesting technique, particularly when environmental costs are ignored.8 

The world wood harvest in 1999 totaled 3.28 billion cubic meters, or just over 0.5 cubic meters for each person worldwide. Some 53 percent of this was used for fuel, supplying the 2 billion people who rely on wood for cooking. In developing countries, wood used for fuel accounted for 80 percent of all the wood harvested.9 

Worldwide, wood accounts for 7 percent of the energy supply. In developing countries, it accounts for 15 percent of the total, compared with just 3 percent in industrial countries. Of the roughly 1.5 billion cubic meters of wood harvested that is not used for fuel, close to one third is used to make paper and paperboard. And over one fourth is sawed into lumber. Wood-based panels, often made with reconstituted wood, account for roughly a tenth of the non-fuelwood total.10

The paper sector of the world wood economy is the fastest growing of all. Between 1980 and 1999, world paper use climbed 86 percent, or 3.3 percent a year. At a total of nearly 317 million tons in 1999, this amounted to 52 kilograms, or more than 110 pounds, per person worldwide. (See Table 8-1.)11

Worldwatch researchers Janet Abramovitz and Ashley Mattoon note that nearly half of this paper was used for packaging. An estimated 30 percent was used for printing and writing paper, while 12 percent was used for newsprint. Paper towels and tissue account for most of the remainder.12 

Looking ahead, the latest FAO projections show fuelwood consumption climbing to 2.35 billion cubic meters in 2015 and then leveling off as increased efficiency in wood burning offsets growth in fuelwood demand. For non-fuelwood use, FAO estimates that consumption will reach 2 billion cubic meters in 2015 and 2.4 billion cubic meters in 2030.13 

In the decades ahead, the growing demand for wood products and the demand to convert forestland to both crop production and cattle ranching will continue to intensify pressures on the earth's forests. If recent deforestation trends continue, both the loss of forest productive capacity and, perhaps more important, the loss of key services that forests provide could disrupt local economies in some countries.


Table 8-1. World Paper Consumption by Country, 1999
Consumption Per Person
(thousand tons)
United States
United Kingdom
South Korea
Top 10 Consumers
World Total
Source: FAO, FAOSTAT Statistics Database,, forest data updated 7 February 2001.


*Data and additional resources have been omitted from this mobile version of our website to ensure the most optimal experience. To view this page with its entire information, please visit the full website.