The World Commission on Environmental Law participated for the first time as an observer during the 13th annual session of the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF-13). One of the main messages delivered at the session is that forests are crucial for the maintenance of adequate food, water, timber, and energy, and sustain biodiversity and health, as well as mitigate climate change. Therefore, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be achieved if forests are sustainably managed and forest landscapes restored.
UNFF-13 took place at UN Headquarters from 7-11 May 2018. It was the first UNFF session after the adoption of the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2017-2030 (UNSPF) and many of the national representatives acknowledged that action must be taken now in order to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 15 “Life on Land.” WCEL’s Forest Specialist Group (FSG) followed discussions and provides the following report on key outcomes.
Although global rates of deforestation have decreased in recent years, in some important forest countries like Brazil and Indonesia, rates are still high and contribute to major biodiversity loss and global climate change. Tackling the drivers of deforestation is still a major challenge, as many of them are rooted in different policies from various economic sectors that favor land uses producing higher and more rapid financial returns, including energy, mining, transportation, and especially agriculture that is responsible for 80 per cent of forest loss globally. In the view of the national representatives gathered at UNFF-13, it is therefore urgent to upscale best practices of land use management, landscape forest restoration, and diversified agriculture systems. This demands not only enough funding, but also appropriate legal and institutional frameworks.
Many countries announced their voluntary national contributions (VNCs) to the UNSPF during UNFF-13. Details were provided on individual plans and joint strategies to meet the goals established under the non-binding instrument, such as increasing global forest cover area by 3 per cent by 2030 (Goal 1). However, most of the VNCs focus on the development of plans and national policies without describing concrete actions to be taken to reach the goals. Some countries, on the other hand, made more concrete pledges. For example, New Zealand committed to planting one billion trees by 2028. The Philippines pledged to rehabilitate 120,000 hectares of forests in 2018 and 100,000 hectares in 2019.
Furthermore, a Communication and Outreach Strategy was adopted by UNFF Members to scale- up best-practices and raise awareness about the importance of forests to global health. The targeted audience is national authorities from diverse sectors, but mainly from forestry and environmental agencies, as well as decision-makers. The strategy assumes that “success stories and best practices from local communities can provide inspiring messages for action on the ground.”
A number of important reports were presented during the session. A study carried out by David Ellison, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, explored the relationship between forests and water. The study demonstrates growing scientific evidence on the role of forests in balancing the regional and global hydrological cycle. These findings present a big challenge to global forest governance. Countries with large forest areas, such as Brazil and Russia, have an even larger responsibility to protect them and maintain the water cycling systems that provide precipitation to neighboring countries. At the same time, new financial approaches need to be put in place in order to assist these countries to truly use their forests in a sustainable way and avoid the expansion of competitive land uses like agriculture. Another study demonstrated that more than 2.5 billion people, approximately one-third of the world’s population, still rely on the traditional use of biomass from forests for their daily energy needs, particularly cooking and heating. It is estimated that approximately 50 per cent of the wood extracted from forests worldwide is used to produce energy as fuelwood and charcoal. Therefore, the use of forest products as a source of energy is a very important driver in forest degradation, particularly in Africa and Asia. This trend is likely to continue for a long time.
There are also health risks related to the use of fuelwood for cooking: an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths per year - more than 60 per cent of them women and children. This is mainly due to the burning of biomass in traditional stoves producing large quantities of pollutants such as carbon monoxide and other particulate matter. One possible solution to improve the use of fuelwood, decreasing forest degradation and air pollution, is the dissemination of improved and efficient biomass-burning stoves that have a relatively low cost and simple technology.
At the core of the meeting was a discussion about how much funding the UNFF Secretariat will receive in the coming years to maintain the work underway and to monitor the implementation of the UNSPF. As the UN budget declines due to reduced financial contributions from the United States, there are concerns that this could affect the survival of UNFF. The representative of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), under which the UNFF is located, explained that the UN Secretary-General is considering various options to strengthen UNFF while respecting its original mandate and function. The Secretary-General will offer a formal proposal once the UN General Assembly adopts an impending resolution on the repositioning of the UN development system. Many countries expressed concerns about impacts on UNFF outputs and the Secretariat staff if the already small budget is reduced.
UNFF-13 concluded with approval of a draft omnibus resolution to be submitted to the UN General Assembly for consideration of multiple points, including:
- Implementation of the UN Strategic Plan on Forests 2017-2030 (UNSPF);
- Monitoring, assessment, and reporting (MAR);
- Means of implementation (MOI);
- UN system-wide contributions to the implementation of the UNSPF;
- Contributions of UNFF to the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development’s (HLPF) review in 2018;
- Preparations for the HLPF review in 2019; and
- Information on the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) reforms pertaining to UNFF.
by Raul Silva Telles do Valle, Chair of the WCEL Forests Specialist Group