Thoughts from CIFOR's Director General, Peter Holmgren

A Sustainable Development Goal on Landscapes: Setting the agenda at COP19 in Warsaw

The year 2015 is key for the future of our growing population on this planet. With the Kyoto-protocol coming to an end by 2020, world leaders will be meeting next month in Warsaw to continue work on a new climate change agreement that applies to both developed and developing countries.

In parallel, there is another process that puts environmental, economic and social concerns center stage: the design of a 2015 development framework, with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the current Millennium Development Goals. As I have said before, I believe that “Sustainable Landscapes” would make an excellent SDG for the future we want. But more on that in a moment.

In just over six weeks, over a thousand participants will be descending on the University of Warsaw to participate in the Global Landscapes Forum. We will discuss how the climate change and sustainable development processes can be more closely aligned, and how this can be done across traditional sector silos.

The support and interest in a broader approach across forestry and agriculture has been tremendous over the past year and a dedicated team is working day and night in preparation for the forum. So I believe now is a good time to reflect on the evolution of the post-2015 agenda, and the progress that has been made towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the past months.

World leaders at the 68th session of the United General Assembly last week adopted a framework to build on the existing Millennium Development Goals to push for sustainability as core part of future development aspirations.

But let us not be blinded by the political rhetoric: The MDGs are fragmented, especially when it comes to land-based sectors, rural development and the environment. As an example, forests are only dealt with under the environment goal and changes in forest area are the only indicator of progress – so there is a strong focus on conservation and less on the wider contributions of forestry to sustainable development.

The inertia of the UN system and the political process so far suggests that the SDGs will resemble the MDGs. But I think we could and should do better – and there is a clear argument to be made for an SDG on “sustainable landscapes” as outlined in my previous blog (Do you agree? Join the interactive Dialogue here.)

Before I get to that, let us first take a look at how different political bodies are pushing the post-2015 sustainable development agenda forward.

How the SDGs are currently formulated

Many parallel paths have been taken to help the formulation of SDGs. Some, like the Global Landscape Forum, fall outside the United Nations setting. However, it is expected that the UN General Assembly will make the formal decision to establish the SDGs in 2014. It is therefore no surprise that a number of separate tracks have been defined inside the UN system. Three of these are:

1. The Open Working Group of the General Assembly (OWG)

The Open Working Group (OWG) is the body that will prepare the General Assembly decision. It is a traditional UN negotiation setting, with country delegations and a considerable bureaucratic process that produces a multitude of documents. In addition, UN agencies, departments and other offices have been summoned to provide the opportunity for staff to present views from “their” institution to the OWG.

The OWG is currently in a series of eight week-long meetings to receive inputs and debate the construction of SDGs, with a subset of disciplines and sectors at each meeting. The last meeting in February 2014 will discuss the inclusion of forests and biodiversity in the post 2015 framework, after which a proposal to the UN General Assembly will be crafted.

For better or for worse, we must rely on the Open Working Group to inform the General Assembly’s decision on SDGs.

2. The High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP)

In May 2013, the High Level Panel released a report defining concrete proposals for a framework to replace the MDGs, which I covered in an earlier blog. My assessment then, and now, is that the HLP has provided an immensely important think piece, and done so at a very high political level (3 country leaders were co-chairing).

The 12 proposed goals (and 7 cross-cutting issues) have led to a fairly cluttered and MDG-like arrangement. However, the HLP report also proposes 5 “transformational shifts”, and these are in my view a better suggestion for SDGs:

1. Leave none behind

2. Put sustainable development at the core

3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth

4. Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all

5. Forge a new global partnership

These shifts represent high level cross-cutting ambitions, they are easy to understand, and there is about the right number of them. This is the type of SDGs we should aim for – under which various sector targets can then be formulated.

3. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)  

This network has been led by Jeff Sachs and has involved a wide range of scientists and experts. The final report An action agenda for sustainable development proposes 10 “priority challenges”, which could be interpreted as SDGs. Some of these are broad and similar to the transformational shifts mentioned above, while others are more narrowly sector oriented (i.e. agriculture, cities, energy and natural resources).

In addition to the above three tracks, one outcome of the Rio+20 Conference was to establish a universal intergovernmental High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development. The HLPF replaces the 20-year long process of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which was a product of the UNCED conference in Rio 1992. (For those interested in UN processes, the Earth Negotiations Bulleting provides an analysis here.)

It is not yet clear what role the HLPF will have for the SDGs. A preliminary report released a few days ago shows attempts to improve the science-policy interface by involving scientists in the initial consultation process.

These processes face many challenges

One concern is that either the SDGs will become too detailed to attract widespread public and political support, or they become lofty global ambitions with insufficient links to decisions and action by people on the ground. Both the reports produced by the High Level Panel and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network make this point.

Another concern of mine, in the case of the Open Working Group, is that the UN dialogue separates different sectors and disciplines and operates along traditional fault lines between agencies, institutions and technical interest groups, making it difficult to focus on the bigger picture and possibly missing the opportunity to drive innovative and cross-cutting solutions.

The “issue briefs” prepared by staff of the 60 or so U.N. entities for the OWG is an interesting example. They have been requested for separate disciplines, with the UN entities closest to the topic chosen as lead authors. These briefs have a tendency to highlight the value and importance of each author’s own sector (and institution), thereby losing sight of the bigger picture.

CIFOR was invited to contribute as a non-UN institution to the issue brief on forests, but we withdrew as we would not agree to table “a specific SDG on forests” as an option. Our argument is that such a narrow SDG is neither viable, nor desirable. Forestry needs to contribute to many of the challenges for the future, but arguing for a separate SDG goes against the spirit of the post-2015 agenda.

The landscape opportunity

But there are also opportunities in the SDG process. With the support we have experienced working on the Global Landscape Forum, I feel comfortable to argue for an SDG on landscapes, following the spirit of the proposed transformational shifts.

So many of sustainable development challenges, and so many of potential solutions are bound to landscapes and the opportunities and challenges of billions of stakeholders who manage them.

Approaching landscapes at a higher conceptual level can be more useful than trying to agree on definitions and discussing who is in charge of a particular landscape. Instead we can view a landscape framework as a starting point for priority setting across stakeholders and sectors at different scales. In other words, a landscape framework is not challenging existing sectors and institutions, on the contrary it helps define how to best contribute to a shared common future.

A landscape framework can therefore also be a starting point for action on the ground and, if it is anchored in the SDGs, provide a crucial link between global goals and local land use.

Some may think this sounds awfully vague and can never be operationalised into investments, firm policy legal frameworks or economic development. But I challenge you to think out of the box and look forward to the journey ahead of us – first stop in Warsaw.


  • Asesh Lahiri

    The challenges of poverty eradiction,environmental protection can be achieved by appropriate management of landscape with aim of sustainable production and judicious consumption without wastages.Though in the past due to indiscriminate use of forest land for non forestry purposes including expansion of agriculture resulted irreperable loss to the landscape-ultimately to the ecosystem,biodivesity etc need to be jeolously guarded to prevent future loss.

  • http://southgreeneconomy.blogspot.com/ Kimbowa Richard

    A landscape approach / Goals would be beneficial – no doubt. However getting to the targets, it is important for those in the developing world for soft issues like land tenure regimes, land use constraints, land governance to be part. Otherwise the hard/technical aspects will as it stands now remain largely unimplemented