In 2000 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that "the role of population dynamics in a local setting may vary from decisive to negligible," and that deforestation can result from "a combination of population pressure and stagnating economic, social and technological conditions."
According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, the overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is agriculture. Subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation; commercial agriculture is responsible for 32% of deforestation; logging is responsible for 14% of deforestation and fuel wood removals make up 5% of deforestation.
The degradation of forest ecosystems has also been traced to economic incentives that make forest conversion appear more profitable than forest conservation. Many important forest functions have no markets, and hence, no economic value that is readily apparent to the forests' owners or the communities that rely on forests for their well-being. From the perspective of the developing world, the benefits of forest as carbon sinks or biodiversity reserves go primarily to richer developed nations and there is insufficient compensation for these services. Developing countries feel that some countries in the developed world, such as the United States of America, cut down their forests centuries ago and benefited greatly from this deforestation, and that it is hypocritical to deny developing countries the same opportunities: that the poor shouldn't have to bear the cost of preservation when the rich created the problem.
Experts do not agree on whether industrial logging is an important contributor to global deforestation. Similarly, there is no consensus on whether poverty is important in deforestation. Some argue that poor people are more likely to clear forest because they have no alternatives, others that the poor lack the ability to pay for the materials and labour needed to clear forest. Claims that population growth drives deforestation have been disputed; one study found that population increases due to high fertility rates were a primary driver of tropical deforestation in only 8% of cases.
Some commentators have noted a shift in the drivers of deforestation over the past 30 years. Whereas deforestation was primarily driven by subsistence activities and government-sponsored development projects like transmigration in countries like Indonesia and colonization in Latin America, India, Java etc. during late 19th century and the earlier half of the 20th century. By the 1990s the majority of deforestation was caused by industrial factors, including extractive industries, large-scale cattle ranching, and extensive agriculture.
 Environmental problems
Deforestation is ongoing and is shaping climate and geography.
Deforestation is a contributor to global warming, and is often cited as one of the major causes of the enhanced greenhouse effect. Tropical deforestation is responsible for approximately 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change deforestation, mainly in tropical areas, could account for up to one-third of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. But recent calculations suggest that carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (excluding peatland emissions) contribute about 12% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions with a range from 6 to 17%. Trees and other plants remove carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis and release oxygen back into the atmosphere during normal respiration. Only when actively growing can a tree or forest remove carbon over an annual or longer timeframe. Both the decay and burning of wood releases much of this stored carbon back to the atmosphere. In order for forests to take up carbon, the wood must be harvested and turned into long-lived products and trees must be re-planted. Deforestation may cause carbon stores held in soil to be released. Forests are stores of carbon and can be either sinks or sources depending upon environmental circumstances. Mature forests alternate between being net sinks and net sources of carbon dioxide (see carbon dioxide sink and carbon cycle).
Reducing emissions from the tropical deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) in developing countries has emerged as new potential to complement ongoing climate policies. The idea consists in providing financial compensations for the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from deforestation and forest degradation".
Rainforests are widely believed by laymen to contribute a significant amount of world's oxygen, although it is now accepted by scientists that rainforests contribute little net oxygen to the atmosphere and deforestation will have no effect on atmospheric oxygen levels. However, the incineration and burning of forest plants to clear land releases large amounts of CO2, which contributes to global warming.
Forests are also able to extract carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air, thus contributing to biosphere stability.
The water cycle is also affected by deforestation. Trees extract groundwater through their roots and release it into the atmosphere. When part of a forest is removed, the trees no longer evaporate away this water, resulting in a much drier climate. Deforestation reduces the content of water in the soil and groundwater as well as atmospheric moisture. Deforestation reduces soil cohesion, so that erosion, flooding and landslides ensue. Forests enhance the recharge of aquifers in some locales, however, forests are a major source of aquifer depletion on most locales.
Shrinking forest cover lessens the landscape's capacity to intercept, retain and transpire precipitation. Instead of trapping precipitation, which then percolates to groundwater systems, deforested areas become sources of surface water runoff, which moves much faster than subsurface flows. That quicker transport of surface water can translate into flash flooding and more localized floods than would occur with the forest cover. Deforestation also contributes to decreased evapotranspiration, which lessens atmospheric moisture which in some cases affects precipitation levels down wind from the deforested area, as water is not recycled to downwind forests, but is lost in runoff and returns directly to the oceans. According to one preliminary study, in deforested north and northwest China, the average annual precipitation decreased by one third between the 1950s and the 1980s.
Trees, and plants in general, affect the water cycle significantly:
• their canopies intercept a proportion of precipitation, which is then evaporated back to the atmosphere (canopy interception);
• their litter, stems and trunks slow down surface runoff;
• their roots create macropores - large conduits - in the soil that increase infiltration of water;
• they contribute to terrestrial evaporation and reduce soil moisture via transpiration;
• their litter and other organic residue change soil properties that affect the capacity of soil to store water.
• their leaves control the humidity of the atmosphere by transpiring. 99% of the water absorbed by the roots moves up to the leaves and is transpired.
As a result, the presence or absence of trees can change the quantity of water on the surface, in the soil or groundwater, or in the atmosphere. This in turn changes erosion rates and the availability of water for either ecosystem functions or human services.
The forest may have little impact on flooding in the case of large rainfall events, which overwhelm the storage capacity of forest soil if the soils are at or close to saturation.
Tropical rainforests produce about 30% of our planet's fresh water.