To the disappointment of environmental campaigners, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 do not include a Goal dedicated to deforestation. Goal 15 aims to “sustainably manage forests” but only within a lengthy peroration under that Goal’s title of “Life on Land”.

In support Goal 15, Target 15.2 declaims: “by 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation…..” Setting a deadline so far in advance of the mainstream Agenda 2030 is ambitious but there are concerns over terminology and the lack of any specific reference to tropical forests.

“Sustainable forest management” (SFM) is controversial for environmentalists who fear that it implies tolerance of felling primary rainforest timber. The definition approved by the UN General Assembly betrays this sensitivity in conceding that SFM is “a dynamic and evolving concept…..which varies over time and between countries.”

This less than wholehearted international resolve for the protection of tropical forests reflects long experience in which deforestation has struggled to make its presence felt in multilateral environmental agreements. Attempts to secure a UN treaty on forests at the landmark 1992 Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit” were unsuccessful. Campaigners had to settle for references to the importance of forests in the three Conventions that were approved – on climate change, biodiversity and desertification.

The Earth Summit did establish an administrative entity to tackle the “management, conservation and sustainable development” of forests. However, the UN Forum for Forests has consistently lacked resources and support. Weak advocacy was further reflected in the Millennium Development Goals which included a single relevant target calling vaguely to reverse the loss of “land area covered by forest”.

The Convention on Biological Diversity eventually secured greater ambition for forests through the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the key outcome of its 2010 conference. These Targets include the aim that: “by 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero.”

Whatever its faults, the more explicit SDG ambition to halt deforestation by 2020 represents an important step forward. The Target should be further reinforced by the Paris Climate Agreement which obliges all countries to publish national plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, known as “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.” Although protection of forests features in the majority of these plans, there are concerns that the INDCs for crucial tropical forest countries such as Brazil and Indonesia are insufficient to fulfil the SDG vision.

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more Forests briefings (updated April 2018)
Importance of Tropical Forests
Deforestation and Forest Degradation
Tropical Forests and Climate Change
Causes of Deforestation
Consumer Solutions to Deforestation
Rights-based Solutions to Deforestation
Market-based Solutions to Deforestation
Source material and useful links