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Sustainable Development Goals- what part do forests play?


This National Tree Week, we are looking at the role that trees and forests play in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Deemed as the ‘lungs of the planet’ and covering 30% of the earth’s surface, forests are essential to supporting all life on Earth. Not only do forests provide a wide array of ecosystem services, such as absorbing greenhouse gases and regulating water quality, there are also over a billion people who depend on forests for their livelihoods. It is clear our forest ecosystems offer irreplaceable resources we can’t live without.

In September 2015, 193 governments from around the world came together at UN Headquarters in New York to agree 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals aim to eliminate all forms of poverty, tackle inequalities and protect the environment, without leaving anyone behind.

From food production to improving water quality, forests provide numerous ecosystem services. The 17 goals set out by the UN are dependent on these ecosystem services being sustained and enhanced, so that we can ‘meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. See our Forests and SDGs chart for a quick overview.

Here are four examples you may find surprising…

Good health and well-being (Goal 3)

Recent research shows how forests play a part in reducing the spread of certain diseases such as malaria. Areas with high rates of deforestation are linked with increased malaria prevalence- clearing trees allows water to pool, providing ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  These mosquitoes will mature and, if infected, transmit the malaria parasite. Furthermore, the lack of forest habitat reduces the number of animals which prey on the mosquitoes. Efforts to prevent forest clearing will help drive down the spread of this life-threatening disease, and help to reduce malaria’s burden on the economy.

Girl collecting water in Vietnam. © Elizabeth Kemf / WWF© Elizabeth Kemf / WWF

Clean water and sanitation (Goal 6)

Clean water is vital to elevate communities out of poverty. Access to a clean and reliable source of water is a basic necessity and essential for good sanitation, health, agriculture and industry. With over three-quarters of the world’s accessible freshwater coming from rivers in or around forests, good forest health is paramount to achieving this goal. Forests provide essential services, from purifying water and recharging aquifers, to reducing the risk of flooding. It has even been shown that higher forest cover is associated with lower prevalence of 3 childhood maladies- diarrhea, severe stunting and severe anaemia. This relationship is strongest where children come from lower income families, showing that the poorest populations are disproportionately affected by the degradation of forests. From this human health perspective we can see just how important it is to maintain and enhance forest cover, particularly around poorer communities.

Waterfall, China. © John Mackinnon / WWF© John Mackinnon / WWF

Zero hunger and sustainable agriculture (Goal 2)

Forests are a key source of food in many countries, particularly in rural areas. Food might be foraged on a small-scale from ancient forests for local consumption, or harvested from larger-scale plantations for the mass market. This food provides vital nutrition and is often a significant boost to the local economy. However, we must balance this with the fact that agriculture and land use change create a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, as well as posing a threat to biodiversity. In order to both protect forests, and work towards zero hunger, we need to focus on sustainable agriculture as a solution. Where forested and agricultural landscapes overlap, we can use sustainability standards to encourage productive and high quality soils, whilst also maintaining rich biodiversity. The Rainforest Alliance Certification is an example of such a standard. They work with farmers to find innovative ways to grow crops which avoid the need to use damaging pesticides, providing a resilient food source in harmony the environment.

© James Morgan / WWF-US© James Morgan / WWF-US

Climate action (Goal 13)

One of the largest challenges for humanity in this century will be coping with the impacts of climate change. Globally, forests store an estimated 296 Gt of carbon. If we can take actions to reduce deforestation and degradation, and maintain forest sequestration, we could contribute 24-33% of all carbon mitigation required. Deforestation is a major driver of global warming, making up nearly 10% of global carbon emissions. Clearly forests have a big part to play in this goal. International efforts to offset carbon have the potential to be beneficial to forests- preserving current forest stocks, improving soil quality and planting new trees. As pressure mounts on corporates to become more socially and environmentally responsible, schemes like this will receive more and more support.

Not only can forests help mitigate climate change, they can also help ecosystems and societies adapt to the impacts of climate change which are already becoming apparent. Forests can increase resilience to adverse weather conditions and natural disasters by acting as a buffer; for example, reducing temperature during heat waves, or preventing landslides during heavy rainfall. Because of this, forests are needed to reduce the vulnerability of communities to climate change.

Mangrove forests, French Guiana © Roger Leguen / WWF© Roger Leguen / WWF

It is clear that forests have a big role to play on the SDG stage. Governments, businesses and individuals must come together to protect the world’s forests and the services they provide. If we can achieve this the potential rewards will be plentiful- and set us well on our way to making the SDGs a success.

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