Imagine if France, Germany, and Spain were completely blanketed in forests — and then all those trees were quickly chopped down. That’s nearly the amount of deforestation that occurred globally between 2001 and 2020, with profound consequences.

Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, producing between 6 and 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2009 study. Meanwhile, because trees also absorb carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere, they help keep the Earth cooler. And climate change aside, forests protect biodiversity.

“Climate change and biodiversity make this a global problem, not a local problem,” says MIT economist Ben Olken. “Deciding to cut down trees or not has huge implications for the world.”

But deforestation is often financially profitable, so it continues at a rapid rate. Researchers can now measure this trend closely: In the last quarter-century, satellite-based technology has led to a paradigm change in charting deforestation. New deforestation datasets, based on the Landsat satellites, for instance, track forest change since 2000 with resolution at 30 meters, while many other products now offer frequent imaging at close resolution.

“Part of this revolution in measurement is accuracy, and the other part is coverage,” says Clare Balboni, an assistant professor of economics at the London School of Economics (LSE). “On-site observation is very expensive and logistically challenging, and you’re talking about case studies. These satellite-based data sets just open up opportunities to see deforestation at scale, systematically, across the globe.”

Balboni and Olken have now helped write a new paper providing a road map for thinking about this crisis. The open-access article, “The Economics of Tropical Deforestation,” appears this month in the Annual Review of Economics. The co-authors are Balboni, a former MIT faculty member; Aaron Berman, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Economics; Robin Burgess, an LSE professor; and Olken, MIT’s Jane Berkowitz Carlton and Dennis William Carlton Professor of Microeconomics. Balboni and Olken have also conducted primary research in this area, along with Burgess.

So, how can the world tackle deforestation? It starts with understanding the problem.

Read the full article about addressing deforestation by Peter Dizikes at MIT News.