Turning the tide on deforestation – challenges and opportunities

We must protect our forests if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goals

Patrick Shepherd, CIFOR
28 April 2021
Landscape News Editor

By Mette Løyche Wilkie, Chair of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests and Director, Forestry Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; and Malgorzata Buszko-Briggs, Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

With under a decade left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we face a serious challenge in halting deforestation and restoring landscapes that we have already damaged.

It is true that in recent years, some regions have managed to slow or reverse deforestation.

But the fact remains that deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates. We failed to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target to sustainably manage all types of forests and to halt and reverse deforestation by 2020. And if we are to deliver by 2030, the world must heed the call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to “turn the tide on deforestation”.

An estimated 420 million hectares of forest – the area of India and Portugal combined – have been lost through deforestation since 1990. We continue to lose about 10 million hectares of forest each year, an area about the size of the Republic of Korea – or twice the size of Costa Rica. And in Africa, the pace of deforestation is accelerating. 

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of deforestation due to reverse migration into rural areas, greater pressure on forests to provide subsistence livelihoods, and fewer resources allocated to forest monitoring and law enforcement.

All of this negatively affects people, biodiversity and the planet. It also has a knock-on effect on the achievement of other SDGs, including those on poverty, hunger, health and – perhaps most pressingly – climate action. 

Deforestation and other land-use activities account for 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If this does not change, we cannot meet climate goals. But if we halt deforestation and restore degraded land, we can make a real difference. Forest restoration alone has the potential to remove 13 to 26 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere between 2020 and 2030. To put this in context, the global agricultural sector emitted a little over 5 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases in 2018.

For all these reasons, on the sidelines of the 16th session of the UN Forum on Forests this week, 15 international organizations working on forests issued a joint statement highlighting the need to turn the tide on deforestation and increase the world’s forest area.

Chaired by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests includes UN agencies, four conventions and other organizations with substantial programmes on forests.

In the statement, the organizations laid out the alarming realities of the impacts of deforestation but also outlined the opportunities – and actions needed – to stop it.

So what can be done?

First, we need to address the increasing demand for agricultural products while limiting the expansion of agriculture into forest areas.

The good news is that feeding a growing world population and halting or even reversing deforestation are not mutually exclusive. We can achieve both by supporting sustainable production practices and agroforestry, and by better, more balanced land-use planning. Restoring the productivity of degraded agricultural lands, stepping up public and private sector commitments to zero deforestation, reducing food loss and waste and educating consumers are also important pieces of the puzzle.

We also need to promote the legality of timber production and trade and minimize the effects of forest fires, pests and diseases.

To achieve this, policies must be changed to reform agricultural subsidies, strengthen forest governance and improve tenure rights. Money must be invested – public and private – to support forest restoration and the conservation and sustainable use of forests. And efforts must involve the active participation of all stakeholders, including the Indigenous Peoples that manage approximately 28 percent of the world’s land surface, local communities, women and young people. 

Society learned many lessons in 2020, and the pandemic was, in many ways, the result of a breakdown in the relationship between human systems and natural systems. 

As we enter the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, we must acknowledge that the protection, management and restoration of ecosystems is a necessary part of our global and local response and recovery. Investments in forest restoration can create millions of green jobs, improve human health and increase food security.

Global partnerships and cooperation are crucial. The Collaborative Partnership on Forests recognizes this and its members will continue to work together to upscale global ambitions to turn the tide on deforestation and meet the SDGs and the UN Global Forest Goals.

This decade we have a chance – perhaps our last chance – to turn the tide on deforestation, to save and restore our forests, and to put in place policies and ways of doing business that protect them. But to do so, we must act together. 

The Collaborative Partnership on Forests comprises the Center for International Forestry Research, Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Environment Facility, International Tropical Timber Organization, International Union for Conservation of Nature, International Union of Forest Research Organizations, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Forum on Forests, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, World Agroforestry Centre and the World Bank.

This article was originally published with Thomson Reuters.

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