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The global forest debate just changed… radically


The global forest debate might have just changed radically. Did you notice?

Earlier this month, the final draft of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated declaration were agreed – although formal sign off will wait for heads of state and government in September. After the years of wrangling over concepts and words, and the still, let’s be frank, lengthy and confusing nature of the goals, you could be forgiven for not jumping with joy at this moment. But the grand title – “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (PDF) – should not be an exaggeration.

It could be transformational. If we help it.

Let’s take forests. They – and the services and resources they provide – are relevant to many goals. Be that in providing paper for education or hygiene. Regulating freshwater. Providing food and fuel. Combatting climate change. And in seeking a truce with the farming frontier. So forests are implicit in many targets and explicit in a few, but they are the sole focus of one in particular:

“By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally”

Take a step back and you realise that this target amounts to reversing the current net global forest loss of about 13 million ha per year to a net positive change in forest cover. In five years.

Autumn woodland in Banchory, Scotland © Will Ashley-Cantello / WWF-UKAutumn woodland in Banchory, Scotland © Will Ashley-Cantello / WWF-UK

It is more ambitious than the New York Declaration on Forests, which was signed by dozens of governments, businesses and NGOs in September 2014 and aims to end natural forest loss by 2030. It is more ambitious, even, than the UN convention on biodiversity whose Aichi Targets set the bar at “at least halving the rate of loss” of forests (among other habitats) by 2020 and “where feasible bring close to zero.” It is closer, in fact, to the global goal WWF promotes which is Zero Net Deforestation and Degradation by 2020. Through the Living Forests Reports, We’ve modelled various scenarios and argued that this ambitious goal is feasible with ambitious policy changes, governance improvements, business actions and some diet changes.

Perhaps in the search for consistency between international agreements, the two co-facilitating countries of the SDG process suggested changing the target to delay the deadline for halting deforestation to 2030. But their proposals were rejected by the member states of the UN – i.e. world governments – who opted to stick with the more ambitious version. This is a very significant development. But I will come back to the timeframe question in a future blog.

Universality: asking the same of everyone.

I want to hone in, today, on another significant change: the universal nature of the goal. The declaration that goes with the SDGs states: “All of us will work to implement the Agenda within our own countries and at the regional and global levels.” What does this mean in practice?

With such a dominant focus internationally on tropical forest loss, some might argue that this target be interpreted as: tackle forest loss in tropical forest countries, and the drivers of that loss in the wealthier consuming countries. But I think this is a convenient interpretation of the agreement to “implementing the agenda within our countries.” I argue this principle would more honestly be seen as implying the target directly applies at home, not just solving problems overseas through partnerships and through tackling the footprint of our consumption (though both are, of course, essential).

This is a good example of the distinctions between the UNFCCC and the SDGs. Whereas the latter attempts to set universal goals, in the UNFCCC forests are normally – and necessarily – discussed in terms of REDD+ (non-Annex I) for developing countries, involving international finance, and LULUCF for developed (Annex I). The SDG forest target breaks down that barrier and asks the same of everyone.

This universal target also offers another way to look how we interpret the ambition of national forest targets. The most prominent process seeking national forest cover targets is the UNFCCC, so scrutiny is highest where the carbon implications are greatest. Fair enough. To stay on course for a below 2 degrees rise in temperature we need to avoid as much deforestation as possible in the tropics, whereas mitigation plans in the EU, US and elsewhere are better focused on energy and industrial emissions. (In fact, there are some who argue that LULUCF emissions should not be included in the EU’s 40% emissions reduction target because their role as a sink might allow other sectors to emit more.) Moreover, tropical forests are incredibly biodiverse so their value is tremendous.

A new call for regrowth of European forests.

Even so, there are strong reasons to promote significant forest restoration, reforestation and afforestation in countries that have lost or degraded much of their forests. For example, the Natural Capital Committee in the UK has demonstrated a very clear investment case for new woodland in Britain. Indeed, the re-wilding movement is keen to emphasise the potential for returning land to natural habitats (often woodland or forest) in Europe as farmland reduces and populations urbanise. So as countries turn their attention to planning for a national response to the SDGs, there is an opportunity to pursue more domestic forest ambition from developed countries.

The Bonn Challenge is one possible existing initiative that could mobilise action on the forest restoration component under the SDGs. But currently there is not a single European country to have made a pledge against that challenge. That should change. In addition, commitment to the SDGs ought to also offer another reason for the EU to respect the flagship directives for habitat and bird conservation that are currently under threat.

The UK, in particular, is a laggard. Woodland and forests would naturally cover much more of the UK than the current 13%. The Government policy to increase cover in England from 10% to just 12% by 2060 is dwarfed in comparison to the targets of Colombia and Peru to achieve zero net deforestation in the Amazon by 2020 and 2021 respectively. A 2015 survey found that four fifths of the UK public agree that ‘a lot more trees should be planted.’ And even that target is off course though, with recent figures from the University of Leicester showing a small loss of forest and woodland over 2006-2012.

Wouldn’t it be great if the UK and other developed countries offered much greater domestic ambition on forest cover as well as finance in the much needed bilateral and global partnerships to tackle global forest loss?

That would change the global forest debate… radically.

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