How Urban Dwellers Drive Massive Deforestation

This post is an excerpt from Worldwatch Institute’s Can a City Be Sustainable? (State of the World).

Urban centers lie at the root of an important—and often neglected—source of emissions: deforestation. According to Senior Researcher Tom Prugh in Can a City Be Sustainable? (State of the World), deforestation caused by growing urban consumption is contributing to massive emissions globally, despite increasing sustainability efforts locally.

Tropical deforestation accounts for an estimated 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year—equivalent to the emissions of some 600 million cars—according to researchers at Winrock International and the Woods Hole Research Center.

Deforestation in cities 1

Deforestation Drivers

Urban growth drives deforestation in at least two ways. First, as rural migrants to cities adopt city-based lifestyles, they tend to use more resources. Their incomes rise and their diets shift to a greater share of animal products and processed foods. This, in turn, drives land clearance for livestock grazing and fodder, either locally or in other countries that export such products or their inputs. Meeting the food needs of a rising and urbanizing global population could require an additional 2.7–4.9 million hectares of cropland per year.

“In Brazil, a surge of deforestation in the Amazon in the early 2000s has been attributed to the expansion of pasture and soybean croplands in response to international market demand, particularly from China,” writes Prugh. There, economic growth and diets richer in meat products have boosted soy imports from Brazil to feed pork and poultry.

Even in relatively highly productive European agriculture, it takes an estimated 0.3 square meters of farmland to produce an edible kilogram of vegetables, but 7.3 for chicken, 8.9 for pork, and 20.9 for beef.

Deforestation in cities 2

A second, and likely lesser, factor linking urban growth to deforestation is that cities are often expanding into areas of farmland and natural habitat, including forests. Cities worldwide are growing by 1.4 million new inhabitants every week. Urban land area is expanding, on average, twice as fast as urban populations. The area covered by urban zones is projected to expand by more than 1.2 million square kilometers between 2000 and 2030.

“Ironically, even as urban expansion drives forest clearance for agriculture, it simultaneously consumes existing farmland,” writes Prugh. “By one estimate, urbanization may cause the loss of up to 3.3 million hectares of prime agricultural land each year.”


What Cities Can Do

“The impact of urban expansion can, in principle, be attenuated by focusing on proven methods of shaping urban form to emphasize compact development and higher densities,” writes Prugh. Reducing consumption, however, is more complicated.

The first and most obvious option is to increase the efficiency of economies at delivering human well-being per every unit of resource input. The impact of the dietary share of higher consumption could be reduced sharply by reducing food waste and creating incentives for much lower meat consumption.

Cities also may have a role in determining broader agricultural policies. In addition to reducing meat consumption, it is possible to reduce the impacts of meat production by shifting from intensive, fossil fuel-based livestock systems to more-diverse, coupled systems that emulate the structure and functions of ecosystems.

Deforestation in cities 4

This post is an excerpt from Worldwatch Institute’s Can a City Be Sustainable? (State of the World). This report examines the core principles of sustainable urbanism and profiles cities that are putting them into practice.

Gaelle Gourmelon is the Communications and Marketing Director at the Worldwatch Institute.

8 thoughts on “How Urban Dwellers Drive Massive Deforestation”

  1. Given its prestige and visibility, Worldwatch should be more careful about the opinions that its bloggers post. This particular blog by Gourmelon is misleading in several ways. First of all, it states that urbanites are wealthier, consume more, eat more meat and therefore provoke deforestation for grazing cattle. Does this mean that people should stay poor, remain in rural areas? Or that when people are poor and reside in rural areas, they are vegetarians, or is it that they just don’t eat?
    Secondly, it states that, by taking up an urban residence, people occupy more land. This is obviously mal-informed. The total area occupied by all the planet’s urbanites amounts to less than 3% of the world’s arable land area. Rural people evidently use more space per capaita, but that is nothing in comparison to the fact that raising animals for food (for grazing and feed crops) now uses a staggering 30% of the Earth’s land mass. Note also that the world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people.
    In short, if you want to do something useful, attack our meat diet. This kind of drivel about the supposed evils of urban concentration is a disservice to the environmental movement.

  2. Gaelle Gourmelon’s blog post was based, accurately, on my chapter, “Rural-Urban Migration, Lifestyles, and Deforestation,” in State of the World 2016: Can a City Be Sustainable? Neither the post nor the chapter asserted that people should stay poor or remain in rural areas; they reported the observation made by scholars that people moving to cities tend to use more resources as their incomes rise and their diets shift from starchy staples to a greater share of animal products and processed foods.

    Nor did the chapter or post argue that people occupy more land when they move to cities; indeed, one of the defining characteristics of cities is their higher population densities. But even at those higher densities, i.e., less space per capita, the sheer numbers of migrants means that cities struggling to absorb them nevertheless often do so in part by expanding spatially into both farmland and forest habitat.

    We agree that meat heavy diets are an impediment to sustainability. We’ve stated that reducing food waste and meat consumption are critical to mitigating the consumption effects of city dwelling. That includes meat consumption by the world’s rich. The planet’s poor, including the rural poor who uproot themselves to seek better lives in cities, deserve a fairer share of the earth’s resources and wealth.

    In the big picture, cities may have advantages for achieving sustainability, especially as the world’s population grows to 9 or 10 billion people, but it remains true that cities are economic engines of wealth creation, whether or not it is equitably distributed. Achieving sustainability at a global scale means that we will have to face honestly the ways in which cities are currently unsustainable—and that includes their tendency to encourage higher consumption. As the chapter concluded:

    [I]f limits to economic growth do exist … and are to be acknowledged and respected, it would seem inevitable that aggregate consumption must still decline. This may be accomplished by lifestyle “downshifting” among wealthy urbanites and/or by wringing much greater efficiencies out of resource use…. In either case, deep and widening wealth gaps that have long histories of intractability will have to be confronted.

  3. Agree with Tom’s lines in his observation when he says – “In either case, deep and widening wealth gaps that have long histories of intractability will have to be confronted.”

    Rich are becoming rich and poor, poorer. This is more so in the case of Under-developed and Developing countries – take for example India – the projected super power of the world but right now – on the one hand, India keeps hogging lots of World Bank Funds for welfare of the poor etc., but on the other, according to Forbes List, every year India is adding more billionaires and millionaires to its list, wealthy Indians who mostly built their riches on the graves of helpless labor class who are still struggling with just about 1 dollar per day earning. Time to bring in a semblance of orderliness in the matter of distribution of natural resources between all living beings on earth. Man is assuming that he alone has the right to squander the natural resources and spew Green House Gases according to his whims and fancies. Is he not denying the other living beings like wild animals, flora and fauna, birds, bees and insects their right to live on this little earth that belongs to all? Look at the food being wasted – nearly 30 per cent of America’s food is found in the garbage bins, the next day morning. This much of food can keep Ethiopian children alive for a week. We are living in a very place called the global village. Human beings must understand that a natural catastrophe like Tsunami can destroy billions is it not time to share and care and live and let live?

  4. The chapter, the blog and the comment by Prugh continue to confuse issues when they conflate the ills of modern civilization with those of urban concentration. The policy implications to be derived therefrom are, at best, murky.

    Incomes rise, diets change, people move to cities and some poor people are now consuming more because economic growth, generated largely in urban areas, has been extraordinary over the last few decades. Unfortunately, this growth, spurred by the culture of consumption and based on the unfettered transformation of natural resources into wastes at an increasingly frantic pace, is simply unsustainable. It is critical to understand that cities are the simply the locus and not the cause of this paradigm’s operation. Focusing on the problems supposedly being caused by urban growth detracts attention from the real problem. Attributing this growth to the migration of poor people to cities and then implying that this is a main factor in increased urban land use or in the spread of deforestation for cattle raising to feed these poor migrants simply confuses the facts, confounds the reader and induces ineffective policies. Thus, inter alia, it should be noted that:
    • Urban growth is increasingly due to natural increase within cities and not to migration. The greater the proportion of the world’s population living in towns, the higher the proportion of growth attributable to natural increase;
    • The expansion of the urban perimeter has relatively little to do with the influx of poor migrants. Modern city growth is increasingly land intensive. As transportation improves, cities use up more and more land per person. The use of land per capita for poor people, who often make up the largest social group of any developing country city, is astonishingly low. City boundaries expand also due to the universal practice of speculation for land in peri-urban areas.
    • Meat consumption increases with economic prosperity of certain social sectors. Poor people in urban areas are not in that category in most countries since they can afford to eat very little meat.
    • Most damagingly, targeting poor migrants as the cause of unsustainability feeds the anti-urban bias of policymakers in most developing countries. Almost four-fifths of these countries have some form of policy to prevent urban growth. The absence of proactive approaches to such growth is the main factor behind the massive increase of slums throughout the developing world and this, in turn, is a main contributor to the unsustainability of cities.

    Ultimately, urban concentration is not only tolerable, it is absolutely essential. We already have 7.5 billion people on Earth and they have to live someplace. Spreading them out over the land, or preventing their clustering in urban areas would multiply deforestation, loss of biodiversity and degradation.

    It’s obvious that cities need to be more sustainable, but picking on marginal issues such as blaming poor urban migrants for unsustainable growth because they contribute to consumption, to cattle raising and to deforestation is, at best, an inappropriate and inopportune approach. Not only does it oversimplify complex issues, but it detracts attention from the critical problem – our very paradigm of civilization. Cities are obviously the world’s engines for economic growth but their existence does not make them or their newer inhabitants the fountainhead of our current environmental quandary.

    I obviously understand the need to combat deforestation but policies need to be based on facts, not biases or simplifications. Urbanization and urban growth are inevitable and, properly managed, can be very positive. Cities concentrate poverty but they also present the best hope for escaping it. They concentrate population growth but urbanization is the greatest catalyst known for fertility decline. Cities concentrate economic activity and embody the environmental damages of our civilization, but they also contain the solutions – if and when economic activity can be re-oriented towards more equitable and more sustainable goals.

    Useful references
    Schlomo Angel. Planet of Cities. 2012

    UNFPA. Unleasing the Potential of Urban Growth. 2007.

    Martine and Alves. 2015. “Three Pillars or Trilemma of Sustainability?”.

  5. Mr. Martine’s arguments descend into the weeds of a complex and multifactorial subject where evidence is often contradictory, sparse, or both, and experts disagree. It is far from clear that “urbanization is the greatest catalyst known for fertility decline.” Other authorities, for instance, point out that fertility has declined in both rural and urban areas and believe that access to good family planning services with a range of contraceptive options is the key factor. And it is mischaracterizing the chapter to claim that it “blames poor urban migrants for unsustainable growth.” My belief is that people everywhere respond, more or less rationally, to the forces and incentives created by the systems in which they are embedded, and for millions around the world that means moving to cities—those “engines of wealth creation.” The chapter’s overarching argument remains that increasing wealth increases consumption, which imposes higher loads on planetary systems already threatened with collapse. We simply must address our overconsumption, and rich nations and peoples are morally obliged to take the lead. Given that cities are both the primary sources of wealth and the primary locuses of consumption, they can and must play a strong role in addressing this issue, and many city governments know it. Let us hope that they can succeed.

  6. Mr. Prugh’s comments restrict themselves to one minor aspect of my detailed criticism of his chapter. He questions my statement that “urbanization is the best catalyst for fertility reduction known to humankind” and counters that family planning helps to reduce fertility in both rural and urban areas.

    Let me clarify the point. True, family planning can help decrease fertility when people are motivated and are looking for ways to implement their reduced family size. The point, however, as the demographic literature has reiterated over 70 years of research, is that rural populations are understandably less interested in reducing their family size. Urbanization not only provides the motivation but information and access to the means of fertility regulation. Urban concentration increases access to other key fertility-reduction variables such as education, income, participation of women in the labour force, greater opportunities for social participation and access to information, and women’s empowerment in general.

    In brief, those socioeconomic variables that have been found to have the greatest influence on fertility reduction are much more likely to be found in urban areas. Another distinctive set of indirect factors influencing fertility behaviour in urban areas stem from what the literature has repeatedly characterized as ‘adaptation’ to urban life. As migrants adjust to urban conditions, they not only react to the stimuli and limitations that life in the city imposes on their lives, but also adapt to the cultural values and mores of their urban milieu in relation to the benefits of smaller families.

    The result is that rural fertility is higher than urban fertility in every one of the 83 developing countries for which DHS data are available, with the average difference between rural and urban TFRs being 1.5 children per woman. Some urban transitions are more conducive to the promotion of social inclusion and to the exercise of citizenship than others. Put simply, there may be ‘good’ urban transitions that speed up the process of human development and provide people with real choices.

    One thing seems eminently clear: when policymakers try to prevent urbanization and adopt specific attitudes that hinder insertion into the urban context, the fulfilment of the urban promise is delayed or obstructed. As I stated earlier, conflating the ills of our consumer-oriented civilization with urban concentration – as does Mr. Prugh’s chapter – reinforces the anti-urban bias of developing country planners and this makes it more difficult for their population to benefit from the unquestionable potential advantages of that concentration for economic, social and environmental improvements.

    Suggested Further Reading
    MARTINE, G.; ALVES, J. E.; CAVENAGHI, S. Urbanization and fertility decline: cashing in on structural change. International Institute for Environment and Development – IIED, December, 2013.
    MARTINE, G. ; Brazil’s Fertility Decline, 1965-95: A Fresh Look at Key Factors. Population and Development Review, 22(1):47-76, 1996.

  7. My impression of this article was the same as Mr Martine’s. At best, the title is biased and misleading. It could be justified only if the point of the article were, in fact, that it would be better for people to remain poor and rural. Otherwise, we need a more penetrating look at factors of cause and effect, and problem and symptom, relating moving to the city, becoming better off, and increasing meat consumption.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *