In fewer than 900 days, the world will have halted deforestation, taken urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity, and ensured that ecosystems are being conserved, restored and sustainably used.

That, at least, is part of what the governments of the 193 countries of the United Nations agreed to in 2015 with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The above commitments are just a few of the targets due to be achieved by 2020 under SDG 15, ‘Life on Land.’

So how is it going? Not too well, unfortunately. Recently released figures show that, far from being halted, global tree cover loss actually increased by 51% in 2016; for tropical tree cover loss, 2017 was the second-worst year on record. And with wildlife abundance projected to decline by two-thirds between 1970 and 2020, dramatic changes will be needed to reverse the long-term trend.

This should set alarm bells ringing. Failure to meet these targets wouldn’t simply be a setback towards achieving SDG 15. It would also threaten our ability to meet the other SDGs – which are closely linked to targets set out for Life on Land – and undermine the very foundation of sustainable development.

Today, protecting the environment may seem like a luxury. But this is a short-sighted attitude, and a false dichotomy.

Ultimately, nature underpins every aspect of our societies and economies: our health, wealth and well-being depend upon the goods and services that ecosystems provide. We cannot achieve the 2030 Agenda if we don’t act now to halt deforestation and conserve and restore forests, biodiversity and the other aspects of life on land set out in SDG 15.

Healthy forests and ecosystems play a critical role in delivering many of the other SDGs – from food security (SDG 2), clean water (SDG 6) and decent work (SDG 8) to sustainable cities (SDG 11), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12) and climate action (SDG 13). Around 1.6 billion people globally – including more than 2,000 indigenous groups – rely on forests for their livelihoods, for shelter, food, fuel and medicines.

This week, government ministers are meeting in New York to review progress on SDG 15 and five other goals at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. They must grab the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to conserving life on land and to turn words into action by redoubling efforts to halt deforestation, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

Importantly, conserving nature shouldn’t be an add-on. It needs to be an integral part of national development strategies. From food and water to energy and climate, nature – and forests in particular – is central to our well-being. National policies must reflect this.

Neither our planet nor its people can risk setting one target against another.

The SDGs are closely interlinked, and coordination is needed across policy areas, across sectors, and across related international agendas like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets.

Neither our planet nor its people can risk setting one target against another – increasing food production by clearing forests, or improving energy access at the expense of biodiversity. We must unlock potential synergies – like restoring forests to secure water supplies, or the importance of trees in sustainable cities.

The Solutions

These solutions exist. At the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), we’ve seen many examples of how working to protect forests and other ecosystems can have multiple benefits across several SDGs. The motivation behind our Ecomakala project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, was to reduce the pressure of charcoal production on Virunga National Park – but it’s also contributing to poverty reduction, energy access, decent work and more. Similarly, in Nepal, installing biogas stoves is reducing carbon emissions, improving food security and empowering women while helping to protect wildlife-rich forests.

One promising approach is forest landscape restoration – bringing deforested and degraded landscapes back to health by restoring the functions that forests provide to people and nature. From our work in Madagascar and elsewhere, we’ve seen how this not only benefits biodiversity and the climate, but can also improve agricultural productivity and incomes for local people.

Under the Bonn Challenge, countries are aiming to bring 150 million hectares under restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. But much greater urgency is needed to put these pledges into action and realize the benefits for climate, for biodiversity and for sustainable development.

Equally important is halting deforestation and conserving existing forests. Again, this links closely with other SDGs. Agriculture is the major driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss, so SDG 15 must be prominent in efforts to achieve SDG 2 (zero hunger) and SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production).

The commitments are there. Under the New York Declaration on Forests, national and subnational governments, indigenous groups, companies and NGOs have made pledges to protect forests. Some 470 companies in the food and agriculture sector have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020, while a number of European countries have offered their support by signing the Amsterdam Declaration ‘Towards Eliminating Deforestation from Agricultural Commodity Chains with European Countries’.

But much greater action and collaboration is needed. Governments need to create an enabling environment for better production and consumption, including strong legislative and policy frameworks that promote the circular economy, and halt deforestation, destruction and conversion of natural habitats. They should set public procurement policies that include criteria to exclude all commodities contributing to deforestation, conversion and pollution of natural habitats.

There should be no illusions about the scale of the task ahead of us. Deforestation and the loss of nature have been the pattern throughout human history. Turning this around in 30 months is an enormous ask.

But it’s what we need to do. Because this isn’t about ticking off some targets: it’s about the future of our planet and all of us who live on it.


Alistair Monument is Global Forest Practice Leader, WWF. Alistair is a qualified forester and auditor with 25 years’ experience in over 40 countries, from multi-stakeholder initiatives, ethical certification and conservation, to workers’ rights, ethical finance and strategic programme development. He founded the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)’s Asia Pacific Regional Office and served as its director for six years. Alistair has sat on many international panels and boards and has extensive experience in the private sector as well as national and inter-governmental agencies.

Hermine Kleymann is Global Forest Practice Policy Manager, WWF. Hermine joined WWF International in 2018 as Policy Manager for Forests. Previously, she worked for the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) where she served as an advisor on REDD+ Finance to the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), providing strategic and technical advice on forest and climate finance and the implementation of international forest commitments, e.g. New York Declaration on Forests, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Prior to GIZ, Hermine worked for six years in WWF Germany and with the WWF International Forest and Climate team on REDD+ policy and forest related policy issues across the network.