3 September 2020

Five years ago, the United Nations outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were widely adopted by countries and organisations worldwide, with the aim to ‘set the world on a path of peace, prosperity and opportunity for all on a healthy planet’ (click for reference link). These goals span social, cultural, economic and environmental targets to be met by 2030. However, the SDG Report 2020 has found that unfortunately the world is not on track to meet the majority of these targets. For example, an estimated 71 million people are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty this year – the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Additionally, the report emphasises the rapid acceleration of climatic changes – faster than anticipated with runaway consumption, continuing land degradation and shocking rates of extinction. 

While there is of course power in individual action, the shift towards sustainability needs to be systematic. The SDGs are undoubtably a step towards this, but as above, it is evident that we still have a LONG way to go with little time!

Figure 1. The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

So, what role do forests play in achieving the SDGs? 

The most explicit link is with SDG 15 – Life On Land: ’to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss’. Forests provide many ecosystem services, such as carbon mitigation, soil stabilisation, air pollution removal and habitat creation to name just a few! Around 1.6 billion people worldwide rely on forests for their livelihood (click for reference link). Preserving forests therefore goes beyond the environmental benefits to encompass income, job security, shelter, culture, indigenous land rights and much more! Integrated management of forests is therefore critical to conserving them. We should even go beyond and enhance our forest resources through well informed decision-making and policy. 

The holistic nature of forestry relates to a number of other SDGs. Here are just a few examples:

  • SDG 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing: Forests (both urban and rural) encourage healthy lifestyles, improve mental wellbeing and remove pollutants from the air we breathe.  
  • SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation: Not only do trees regulate the hydrological cycle, rates of flooding and erosion, but they also filter out biological and chemical pollutants. 
  • SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy: In some parts of the world, wood fuel energy is the most affordable or indeed, only available resource. 
  • SDG 9 – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Forest resources allow for the production of raw materials and/or later transformation into products; from wood and fibre to biofuels and medicine. 
  • SDG 13 – Climate Action: Forests remove atmospheric carbon, helping to mitigate the greenhouse effect. Near buildings, trees also reduce energy consumption such as for air conditioning thereby decreasing reliance on fossil fuels.
  • SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Some 2,000 indigenous cultures (click for reference) live subsistence lifestyles within or near forests and are usually ‘outside the political and economic mainstream’ (click for reference). They must be considered in decision-making regarding forest encroachment. 

To expand on the implementation of sustainable development, I would like to introduce Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ model (click for reference). This is a call for a reconceptualisation of our growth ideologies. ‘Social foundations’ are placed at the centre to ensure that nobody falls short, and life-support systems are used as an ’ecological ceiling’ to limit consumption. In other words, this model would ensure that communities live healthily, safely and justly within the planetary boundaries.

Figure 2. The ‘Doughnut Economics’ model, as proposed by Kate Raworth

A great example of how this concept can be upheld is through agroforestry production systems (click for reference) which incorporate trees with crops and livestock. Trees could be planted on farmland, or crops and livestock could be integrated into the woodland environment. Land management strategies such as crop rotation are often used, allowing for natural regeneration. Considered to be a win-win approach, it integrates food/fuel production and economic prosperity to support (or even improve) human livelihoods; all while enhancing biodiversity, mitigating climate change, reducing pest and flood risk, and remaining within planetary boundaries. This multifunctional strategy is rooted in tradition, but is increasing in popularity again after being superseded by intensive agriculture that exceeds environmental limits on so many levels. 

But for many people across the world, this kind of opportunity to live in line with natural processes is off-limits. In 2014, we reached a milestone with over half of the world’s population living in urban areas. The UN predicts that this will rise to 68% by 2050 (click for reference). With this exponential urbanisation comes an increasing number of trade-offs. In the UK, the Green Space Index indicated that in 2020 2.5 million people ‘lack access’ to parks and green spaces (click for reference). The Marmot Review by the UK Government recognises the ‘social gradient in environmental disadvantage’, with a disproportionate impact of environmental burdens on disadvantaged groups (click for reference). There is a well known link between access to nature and both physical and mental health. For example, residents in urban social housing with a view of trees/open space showed better capacity to deal with stress than those who did not have such view (click for reference). Health inequalities can therefore result when access to good quality green space is limited. 

Figure 3. The Urban Forest, Cologne, Germany

So if people don’t have access to green space, why not bring it to them! One way to do this would be to enhance the Urban Forest. As aforementioned, the urban forest provides a plethora of benefits; not least in relation to health through removing air pollutants, lowering urban temperatures, reducing stress, encouraging physical activity, lowering crime rates, increasing road safety and creating a sense of community (click for reference). These are of course explicit links to SDG 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing. But the inequalities in health and environmental conditions undoubtedly relate to other SDGS, including SDG 1 – No Poverty, SGD 10 – Reduced Inequalities, SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 13 – Climate Action, SDG 15 – Life on Land, and SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. 

Figure 4. The Benefits of Trees infographic – Treeconomics copyright

I hope this illustrates just how interconnected the SDGs are with each other, as well as how forestry is one of many integral factors in achieving them. A systematic shift in our conceptualisation, such as that proposed by the ‘Doughnut Economics’ model, is required if we are to achieve the SDG’s agenda by 2030. This will come by prioritising people and the planet with all of its wonderful trees!