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News / 26 October 2018

Analysis of the UN’s review of progress on SDG 15 ‘Life on land’

The sixth High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was held at the UN Headquarters in New York in July 2018. The HLPF provides an opportunity to review global progress towards achieving the SDGs and for countries to present their own Voluntary National Reviews of the implementation of the SDGs. At this year's HLPF, SDG 15, known as the 'Life on Land'-goal, was under review.

SDG 15 sets the goal to "Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss", with 12 underlying targets and 14 indicators.

Increasing deforestation and desertification

Review of SDG 15 and progress towards the global targets it sets for protecting and preserving some of the most critical and fragile natural resources for human survival is timely. For example, while overall global deforestation trends may have slowed since the 1990s, recent reports suggest that both global tree cover loss (which includes tree plantations as well as natural forests) and tropical rainforest deforestation have spiked in 2016 and 2017 as major agribusiness frontiers (eg for cattle, soy, palm oil, and cocoa) have expanded into remaining tropical forest regions in Latin America, South East Asia and Africa.

The links between deforestation, biodiversity loss, land degradation, climate change, tenure insecurity, food insecurity, gender inequality, and poverty are increasingly well-documented. Therefore taking action to implement SDG 15, while arguably one of the more intangible goals for national-level policy-makers, remains crucially important.

SDG 15: huge challenges remain unaddressed

Regrettably, the tone of discussions during the HLPF failed to reflect the alarming reality. Speakers from UN institutions and national governments emphasized positive stories while acknowledging that 'more needs to be done' in relatively vague terms without specific demands or actions. It was an impossible task to have a genuine discussion about the barriers and challenges to achieving concerted progress on SDG 15 within the three hours allotted for discussion in the HLPF program, let alone to hear the diversity of voices with an interest in these issues. Most speakers chose to focus on benefits to be gained from the growing 'ecosystem' of data available to analyse trends and demonstrate progress, rather than the calamity endured by the millions of people experiencing land, food, or water insecurity on a daily basis. Under the auspices of the UN, with its formal atmosphere and discussion protocols, diplomacy gets in the way of urgency.

Undesirable trade-off of SDG-targets

The challenge of addressing deforestation represents the tension inherent in the SDG framework. At the UN level, members commit to pursuing 'sustainable development' in an integrated way with the ultimate goal of 'leaving no-one behind'. Yet the SDG framework explicitly allows states to set their own definition of 'sustainable development' and to pursue it according to national priorities and capacities. Thus at the country level trade-offs are often made between the social, economic and environmental 'pillars' of sustainable development.

For example, in tropical and subtropical regions around the world, about 73% of deforestation is caused by the conversion of forest to agricultural land. Civil society reports suggest that such expansion is primarily for export markets (mainly in the wealthier countries of Europe and North America and India's and China's emerging middle classes) without any significant contribution to local livelihoods or food security. While there is increasing information available about areas designated by national authorities as 'forest' or 'protected' for biodiversity reasons, and positive trends in the number of areas being identified as 'sustainably managed' or containing 'high conservation values', these statistical improvements in the progress of SDG 15 pale in comparison to the vast areas becoming dry, barren or unproductive annually due to land and soil degradation or the millions of people displaced as a result. Regrettably, even within the United Nations' chambers, the issues of deforestation and land degradation are primarily seen as local issues with ultimate responsibility falling on the governments within whose borders they persist, rather than global challenges inherently linked with our shared global economy that call for shared responsibility (and leadership) in their resolution.

'Business as usual' is not being challenged

Reassuringly, the official HLPF report makes particular mention of the issue of land degradation as a critical challenge to achieving SDG 15, albeit in detached and diplomatic terms. However, the development of comprehensive solutions to tackle the complex and interlinked issues of deforestation, land degradation, desertification, food and water insecurity, and poverty remain elusive under a framework that allows national governments to prioritize economic development over social and environmental values and does not inherently challenge the 'business as usual' paradigm of the current global economic system. The SDG 15 thematic discussion during the HLPF scratched the surface of this urgent need, yet did not take that discussion much further than describing the problems we already know about with new statistics.

Consequently, the HLPF missed an important opportunity to emphasize that SDG 15 is a key enabler of many other SDGs and targets, such as food security, and is a critical measure of overall progress on the 2030 Agenda. To really achieve the goals set for 2030, a paradigm shift is urgently needed. The world's small-scale farmers, urban poor, landless people, women, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups all know this. Now they need the world's governments and leaders to take the 2030 Agenda seriously – not just as a blueprint for prosperity, but as an urgent and necessary priority.

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