04/29/2011 02:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

Arbor Day 2011: Are We Living Out 'The Lorax'?

Every minute, we lose 36 football fields-worth of forests. Are we living out Dr. Seuss’s environmental fable, “The Lorax”?

WWF recently released their 2011 “Living Forests” report. Based on data showing that over 230 million hectares of forest could disappear by 2050, the report proposes a universal goal of “zero net deforestation and forest degradation” (ZNDD).

The report states that we are exceeding Earth’s biocapacity by 50 percent. Human demand is “overshooting” the planet’s ability to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2. At our current rate of resource use, we will need two planets to live on by 2030.

WWF created a “Do Nothing Scenario” that projects what our world will look like if we continue to follow our historic trends. This scenario assumes that by 2050, world population will hit 9.1 billion, per capita GDP will nearly triple, the human diet will shift, and unprotected natural habitats might be converted for forestry/agricultural production.

Deforestation and forest degradation are driven in large part by demands for food and fuel, with pollution and invasive species also contributing to the problem. Forest degradation can result in less productive forests, decimated wildlife, and fires.

Under the “Do Nothing Scenario,” deforestation between 2010 and 2050 could destroy 232 million hectares of forests. That’s an area equivalent to the forested regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru, and Papua New Guinea combined.

Earlier this year, Conservation International highlighted the ten forests that are most at-risk today. Together, these threatened forests store over 25 gigatons of carbon, while deforestation contributes to 15% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. In a region like New Caledonia, nickel mining, forest destruction, and invasive species threaten the fauna, with just five percent of the original habitat remaining.

There are no decimated Truffula Trees, but this path of deforestation could result in a similar Lorax scenario.

The Do Nothing Scenario does not need to come to fruition. The Living Forests Model suggests that over half of the deforestation in the Do Nothing Scenario is “unnecessary.” It could be social and political constraints, such as poor governance, contradictory incentives, and lack of knowledge, that will result in sub-optimal land use. WWF proposes ZNDD as a way to avoid these constraints and in turn, avoid unnecessary deforestation.

ZNDD proposes that most natural forests should remain intact. Any gross loss of natural forests should be offset with forest restoration. Deforestation will not cause a net forest loss, and degradation will not result in a decline in forest quality under the ZNDD model. This would be a significant change from our current path of destruction. We would have to reduce forest loss by 13 million hectares per year.

How can this be done? In the short term, better governance, says Rod Taylor, WWF International Forests Director. “But as we get out towards 2050 and the population passes 9 billion, we will need to cut over-consumption and waste of food and energy, and boost productivity of farms and forestry to keep forest loss at near zero.”

While ZNDD may be proposing a discernable change from our world’s current path and the Do Nothing Scenario, the goal is not to eliminate all forest clearing initiatives. As an AFP article notes, ZNDD acknowledges that people have a right to clear some forests for agriculture, but the net quantity and quality of the forests must be maintained.

WWF’s Dr. Efransjah cites the island of Borneo as a case where ZNDD ideas are being practiced. The island currently has a 220,000 square kilometer region dedicated to conservation and sustainable management, called the Heart of Borneo. “In the Heart of Borneo, tangible examples of how these systems work are emerging. WWF-Indonesia acknowledges that sustainability does not occur overnight. We call on the business sector to join with us as we make the first steps on the road to a green economy and low carbon future.”

If the world can manage to embrace ZNDD, then perhaps “The Lorax” can simply remain a children’s fable.

To view the first chapter of the WWF's "Living Forests" report, click here.