Forests in the sustainable development goals

7 April 2014

Forests make big targets - for better or worse. Planting trees, or cutting down forests, has major consequences. If we manage forests well they will give us goods and services that we cannot live without. If forests disappear we lose any prospect of sustainable development. Forests and trees are rooted in life and livelihoods. They can be grown, improved, and looked after - they are renewable. It would be hard to find a simpler and more universal way of changing the world for the better than by planting and managing trees.

At the Rio+20 summit in June 2012, member states agreed to create a set of universal and integrated sustainable development goals (SDGs) to ensure the promotion of an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable future, framed in the context of the "Future we want" outcome document. The latter expressed strong support for eradicating poverty and mainstreaming sustainable development to tackle other major challenges such as hunger, health, and climate change, as well as to transition to a green, inclusive economy. Among other things, references were made to the important role of ecosystems in development. The part played by forests and trees was also acknowledged throughout the document, as well as in a specific stand-alone thematic section, where delegates emphasised, "We highlight the social, economic and environmental benefits of forests to people and the contributions of sustainable forest management to the themes and objective of the Conference." Efforts to reverse deforestation and degradation were called for on the one hand, balanced by need to promote trade in legally harvested forest products.

The negotiations to outline the SDGs are now well underway. In February, the co-chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development (OWG) - the UN body charged with developing a first proposal to forward to the General Assembly in September - released a list of 19 focus areas, later revised in March. Although not a zero draft, the document was designed as a stocktaking exercise of OWG's eight previous discussion sessions, as well as to focus delegates' minds on the task ahead. OWG has now moved into its second, negotiating phase. At the Group's most recent meeting, delegates were invited to consider the focus areas in eight clusters. At the meeting's close, the co-chairs indicated they will provide another revised focus areas document based on these discussions for the next session in May.

Against this background, where might forests best be placed in order to maximise their ecological, cultural, social, and economic development benefits? The co-chairs' focus areas document positions them for consideration under an "Ecosystems and biodiversity" headline, which is reportedly still generating wide-ranging discussion at this stage of the negotiations. Possible policy actions put forward for consideration include promoting sustainable forest management, halting deforestation and conversion of forest to crop lands, restoring degraded forest ecosystems and increasing relevant protected areas, as well as supporting forest-related employment and ensuring indigenous peoples benefit from forest conservation and sustainable use.

Full integration of the benefits of trees and forests in the SDGs is both desirable and feasible. Aspirations for trees and forests can be both universal and differentiated to local circumstance. This paper presents concrete options for the inclusion of forests and trees within a sustainable development framework. These options are based on views expressed during a meeting of Europe-based experts held in Geneva, Switzerland on 22-23 January, convened by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), Committee on Forests and the Forest Industry, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), European Forestry Commission. Participants at the meeting stressed the importance of properly recognising the role of forests in sustainable development, the green economy, and poverty eradication. Well-formulated forest targets will ensure that forests will enhance their role in sustaining people's livelihoods and the environment.

Forest goal options

Many forest related targets already prevail in international policy instruments. These include the interlinked Rio Conventions - on Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Desertification - which derive directly from the 1992 Earth Summit. Also important are various forest sector specific instruments such as the Non-Legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests agreed by the UN Forum on Forests in 2007, as well as the International Tropical Timber Agreement that entered into force in 2011, and related international food and agriculture goals such as the UN Zero Hunger Challenge and FAO's Global Goals and Strategic Objectives. Last, but by no means least, trade and economic development conventions and initiatives including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the European Union's Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) programme.

But although there is much good work already being done; further efforts could be made to scale-up the protection and sustainable use of forests as part of a new, integrated development framework. At the Geneva experts meeting, three main options were considered. The first would see a "stand-alone forests goal," with its own targets and indicators. This would bring very useful attention to the massive potential benefit of forests for sustainable development, as well as focusing efforts on realising this potential through a balanced and holistic approach.

A second option would be to include forests targets and indicators as part of a natural resources or ecosystem services goal, as positioned in the current OWG's focus areas document. This would catalyse the necessary integration of forests and trees with related sectors, but would likely result in fewer forest-linked targets and indicators than either of the other options. Another route would be to take advantage of the mandated integrated nature of the new framework, and include forest-relevant aims across several or most of the SDGs. The first and third options are now perhaps unlikely given the current shape of the negotiations. Nevertheless, including forest-related targets in some way is critical to focus attention on the huge potential benefits that management of forests and trees can deliver to a full range of goals for sustainable development.

Consider, for example, the implications of detailed findings from around 8,000 households spread across 24 countries in a study released late March by the Poverty and Environment Network steered by the Center for International Forestry Research. It shows that income from natural forests and other non-man-made areas accounts for 28 percent of total household income, nearly as much as crops, and that women generate about the same amount of income from forests as men do.

Hybrid combinations of the above options for forest targets may occur. The renewable, manageable, multifunctional nature of forests and trees means each is valid. Accordingly, the January workshop in Geneva generated a list of suggested targets and indicators that could be integrated into the SDG framework.

10 key targets for forest and trees in SDGs

Based on strong evidence and public opinion in a wide range of countries worldwide, and substantial existing levels of international agreement, 10 key targets - here arranged in three groups - could be justified and incorporated into the SDGs, as illustrated in Figure 1. These targets will need to be further developed to be specific, time-bound, and measurable. The meeting in Geneva did not discuss or develop indicators for these targets, but two tentative examples of the kinds of indicators that may be needed are also offered under each target outlined below.

Group 1: Social and cultural benefits from forests and trees improved

1. Income and employment from forests and trees in rural areas increased

    • Income per household from forest products and services, disaggregated by gender

    • Number of jobs and wages paid in forest resource production and management

2. Rights, tenure and governance of forests strengthened

    • Percentage of secure local land and resource tenure

    • Percentage of forest products from legal and sustainable sources

3. Food security and nutrition contribution of forests and trees enhanced

    • Percentage of households with access to nutritious forest foods and wood fuel

    • Percentage change in adoption of tree-based agricultural and soil conserving practices

Group 2: Resilience and ecosystem benefits of forests enhanced

4. Forest resources quantity increased and/or quality improved

    • Hectares under approved forest management plans

    • m3 and quality/composition of trees outside forests

5. Biodiversity of forests conserved and improved

    • Hectares under protection and management for optimising biodiversity

    • Percentage change in number/area of in situ and ex situ conservation of forest genetic resources

6. Water quantity and quality contribution of forests enhanced

    • Percentage change in water quality and quantity in and from forest areas

    • Hectares of forests contributing to management for watershed conservation

7. Climate resilience and mitigation contribution of forests strengthened

    • Percentage change in forest management and trees in farming systems for climate adaptation

    • Percentage change in carbon stocks in forest and tree biomass and forest soil

Group 3: Green economy contribution of forests and trees increased

8. Energy from forest resources increased, safe and sustainable

    • Percentage of forest biomass in total energy supply

    • Percentage change in safety and efficiency in forest biomass energy

9. Efficiency of forest resource use increased

    • Percentage change in efficiency of production and processing of wood and non-wood products

    • Percentage change in efficiency of use of wood and paper products

10. Investment in, and use of, products from sustainably managed forests increased

    • Dollar value change in investments in sustainably managed trees and forests

    • Dollar value change of exports and imports from sources verified as legal and sustainable

Figure 1: Root causes, suggested targets on forests and trees in the SDGs


Key elements in the process needed from now on

During the remaining three OWG negotiation sessions, the formulation of the SDGs will likely see more twists and turns. As the negotiations forge ahead, two areas in particular would benefit from increased attention and specific initiatives, which would help address forest concerns, as well as other salient areas. Dialogue with less clearly-heard voices and geographies will be crucial for obtaining a balanced outcome. Targeted multi-stakeholder dialogue is needed, involving particular mixes of existing SDG framework "insiders," with other relevant sectors, disciplines and major groups, and both public and private sector actors - in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America in particular. Secondly, substantial efforts will be needed to develop country-level capacity to adapt and apply the SDG framework in ways that are driven by national priorities, experience and the building blocks available. Initial consideration of the practicalities of SDG implementation could usefully help shape the framework itself. In conclusion, it is hoped that these actions proceed not through "special pleading" for forests, but by demonstrating and developing understanding of how trees and forests can be best incorporated in the SDG framework, in a way that secures wide ecological, cultural, social, and economic benefits.

This paper is based on views expressed during a workshop convened by UNECE and FAO, held in Geneva, Switzerland, January 2014.

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