Deforestation is one of the strongest causes of the rise in global carbon emissions. The loss of forest, which occurs most in the tropics, releases carbon stored in biomass and soil into the atmosphere. Between 1970 and 2010 almost one-fifth of the Brazilian Amazon was deforested, mostly to make way for cultivation and pasture.

In principle, reducing deforestation is one of the cheapest ways to reduce carbon emissions and has the added benefit of preserving ecosystems. It is for this reason that various countries, through the United Nations, have supported the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) initiative, which seeks to give financial incentives to developing countries to reduce deforestation and forest degradation – the thinning of forests through selective logging. But there is an irony in that many of the countries behind REDD are in fact driving deforestation through their demand for Brazilian soybean and cattle.

The latest study by Jonas Karstensen, Glen Peters and Robbie Andrew at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo shows that irony is becoming more acute. They combined official deforestation data with a model of land-use change to estimate the carbon emissions from cleared forest every year from 1990 to 2010. They then plugged these values into a global trade model, which "attached" the emissions to the goods and services bought by consumers the world over.

In the 1990s, 20% of carbon emissions from Brazilian deforestation could be linked to goods and services exported abroad. In the 2000s, however, that figure rose to 30%, according to the Oslo group's model. Of these exported emissions, 71% were due to cattle ranching, with the remainder due to soybean cultivation.

The main reason for the increase, the study found, was growing demand from industrialized nations and emerging markets such as Russia and China. But Andrew believes that it is unhelpful to point the finger of blame. "We see deforestation as a shared problem," he said. "It's not just Brazil's fault, and neither is it just the fault of consumers."

Andrew explained that the cause of the deforestation is the demand for specific Brazilian goods and services, a problem that needs to be addressed "at both ends". "[We need] better regulation and oversight in Brazil to make it harder for companies to clear forest and a recognition along the entire supply chain all the way to consumers – whether Brazilian or in other countries – that purchasing choices have a major impact on the environment," he said. "REDD is important but [it] must be accompanied by other measures. We can't expect that governments can sort out this problem without the support of citizens."

The researchers now plan to extend their study to other countries hit by heavy deforestation. "Indonesia is the next most important, with [the] production of palm oil being a major driver," said Peters.

The analysis is published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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