Sustainable Development Goal for Deforestation

updated January 2017

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 include Target 15.2 which aims to “halt deforestation….by 2020”. This timeline certainly improves on prior expectations that 2030 would be the deadline for halting deforestation.

Until now, deforestation has struggled to make its presence felt in UN 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 lacked resources and has succeeded only in securing a non-legally binding international agreement on forest sustainability which has not attracted 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”.

A far more significant achievement was the 2007 adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This commits governments to respect the right of indigenous peoples to determine their own development strategies and to own land which they have traditionally occupied. It further stipulates that “no relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned.”

Whilst there are many indigenous groups who do not live in forest regions, there is sufficient overlap between indigenous and forest peoples for UNDRIP to be a key point of reference in formulating solutions to deforestation.

A further step forward was taken with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the key outcome of the 2010 conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. These aim that: “by 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved.” This was reinforced by a similar promise in the New York Declaration on Forests, an outcome of the 2014 UN Climate Summit convened for world leaders.

The SDG Agenda which creates a Target to halt deforestation by 2020 therefore represents a significant advance over these previous promises. However, a potential reservation lies in the choice of “progress towards sustainable forest management” as the indicator for monitoring the Target.

“Sustainable forest management” (SFM) is controversial for environmentalists who fear that it implies tolerance of felling prime trees. 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.”

Current action plans in the major tropical forest countries also undermine the credibility of the Sustainable Development Goal for deforestation. These plans are available for scrutiny as an obligation under the Paris Climate Agreement to publish “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”, the jargon for national plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The INDCs for countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and India fall well short of the SDG vision.


more Forests briefings
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

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