Bridges Trade BioRes ReviewVolume 5Number 2 • July 2011

Rio+20 Briefing #2: Forests and the green economy

Discuss this articleShare your views with other visitors, and read what they have to say

On the road to Rio+20, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and civil society organisations have been conducting extensive research on the appropriate role of forests in the transition to the “green economy.” The studies have overwhelmingly found that forests can be a powerful tool for sustainable economic development and successful global transition to a green economy if action plans are implemented over a carefully planned governance framework.

Forests naturally embody the ideal characteristics of a green economy: low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive [1]. They also offer exceptional opportunities for green employment with jobs that can reduce consumption of energy and raw materials, avoid greenhouse gas emissions, and minimise waste and pollution while protecting and restoring ecosystems [2]. In order to be brought to fruition, these natural characteristics of forests require proper governance.

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) will have the opportunity to draft a framework of forest governance schemes with the context of the global initiative to transition to a green economy. Products and services from forests not only constitute a significant portion of the global economy but they are also tools that can instigate sustainable development within the context of a green economy. Forest management, meanwhile, adds to production and services by bolstering the green job market. Reports produced by UNEP, UNECE - in cooperation with the FAO, and the Pardee Center all make the case that forests must play a major role in transitioning to a more sustainable economic system.

Mounting pressures on forests

World forest cover continues to shrink by 13 million hectares a year [3]. With the world’s population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050 and consumption per capita on the rise, the pressure to tear down forests for urban construction and agricultural use will undoubtedly intensify. The competition in developing countries over use of agricultural land for food production or for biofuel cultivation will put forests at even greater risk. Coupled with the destructive effects of climate change on land, such as desertification in Africa and land erosion in costal nations, forests worldwide are increasingly under threat. The global economic downturn, multiple financial crises, and competition over use of dwindling natural resources are also major factors accelerating deforestation.

The fact that forests are influenced by everything from population and development to climate change and economics, is evidence of how interweaved forests are into the web of global society. Therefore, if forests can be impacted by various factors occurring in the world today, one can imply that the reverse is also true.

Studies now show that indeed, forests do have power - tremendous power - to positively impact poverty reduction, human health, international trade, economic development, security, biodiversity, and climate change. According to a recent UNEP study, “biologically-rich forest ecosystems provide shelter, food, jobs, water, medicine and security to more than 1 billion people, as well as regulate our climate [4].” The forest sector - which includes forest management, forests products, and services - employs somewhere between 119 million to 1.42 billion people the world over across a vast range of products and services (See Table).

While timber, pulp, and paper stand out as the largest forest products traded internationally, forests are also an important source of energy, food, and firewood for local economies. In-tact forests also provide crucial services for forest communities such as storing drain-off water in water tables, acting as carbon sinks, and attracting tourism. Products and services of forestry comprise around 1 percent of world gross domestic product (GDP).

Products and services originating from forests present substantial monetary value within the current economy but the system fails to acknowledge the intrinsic values of forests as a protector of biodiversity and valuable resources, thus greatly under-representing the worth of forests to society. Under a green economy - a system of interactions among markets, environmental forces and social policies sustainable over the long run [5] - forests can be realised for their intrinsic value as well. Therefore, in a green economy, forests will be more valuable in-tact and sustainably managed, rather than clear cut for short-run monetary gain. In this manner, the natural capital of the forestry sector for aspects such as water collection, energy storage and species protection will have a place in the system.

Mixed mechanisms for forest governance

At Rio+20, the international community will have to tackle the issue of how forest governance can attribute veracious figures to the natural capital of the forestry sector in order for the green economy to meet its potential. In order to ensure proper assessment of forest values, a variety of stakeholders from across the world are being included in the process [6]. These stakeholders range from local and international nongovernmental organisations to governments, international organisations, forest governing bodies, biodiversity specialists and indigenous groups. The plethora of stakeholders is integral to proper policy assessment because forests span a wide range of issues including those of commodities to biodiversity, sustainable development to human rights issues and beyond [7].

Stakeholder contributions to the Rio+20 consultative process have revealed a worrisome North/South divide on approaches to forest governance. In general, developed economies in the North believe their boreal forests hold greater value as standing ecosystems while developing countries in the South tend to view more economic development potential in the harvesting products from their forest - like timber [8]. A symptom of this division is the complexity of forest governance structures the world over. “The multiplicity of issues, users, uses, and views of forests has led to a myriad governance mechanisms, instruments, and diverse approaches to the implementation and enforcement of sustainable forest management,” points out the Pardee Center study [9].

Instead of attempting to “silo” forest governance mechanisms, the Pardee Center report chapter on “Transforming Global Forest Governance,” recommends embracing the complex nature of such laws because it allows for differentiation on a country by country level where issues of actual implementation are best understood and implemented. Therefore, the authors contend, objectives should be put in place to better manage the existing governance systems instead of replacing them.

UNEP, in their Green Economy Report, advocate for the international community to take on a role that strengthens forest-related governance by creating, implementing, and supporting transparency mechanisms. According the report, the best opportunity the international community has to both address poor forest management and to raise funds to protect forests is by passing the enhanced UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme. The REDD+ scheme would offer monetary and competitiveness incentives for actors in the forestry sector to embrace a paradigm shift to a more sustainable forest value chain, the UNEP report finds.

The UNECE-FAO “Draft Action Plan” outlines a framework for developing indicators of sustainable forest management and instruments for assessment of such governance. The framework focuses on detailed study of the systems currently in place and evaluation of such policies through communication and outreach throughout the sector across the globe.

Combined, the advocated approaches describe a governance scheme for the forest sector that is dynamic and differentiated to allow for country-specific implementation with international monitoring and support. If a like scheme is to be adopted and successfully implemented at Rio+20, UNEP points out that transparency and knowledge building on forests would have to be at its core. Forest management policies built upon a strong governance framework would assist in the transition of the sector into the green economy.


Some critics argue that a “greening” of the forestry sector is inherently impossible because products produced from forests automatically represent ecological damage to the forest itself. This argument hinges on the concept that standing forests could never be properly assessed for their value to society. But stakeholder consultations have already led to a better realisation of the private and social benefits of forests, according to UNEP.

Today, US$60 million is invested annually in the forestry sector. With increased public and private investment in green services, products, management, and employment, UNEP contends that the world will see a reduction in carbon emissions, an enhancement of resource efficiency, and a reduced loss of forest biodiversity. UNEP has found that with an additional .034 percent of world GDP - US$40 billion - invested annually in the forestry sector, deforestation could be halved and value added in forestry could be raised US$600 billion by 2050 [10].

This initial investment would create the means for forests - already a powerful sector in economic and social development - to become more sustainably managed. Through international support, the forestry sector will have the capacity to make a paradigm shift in stewardship and production. On the road to Rio+20, the forestry sector is in an advantageous position to become a powerful tool in the global transition to “green economy” if governance strategies harness it correctly.

BioRes Review’s Rio+20 Briefing #1 can be accessed here.

[1] UNECE-FAO (May 2011). Draft Action Plan for sustainable forest management in a green economy.

[2] ILO (May 2011).

[3] UNEP (May 2011). Forests in a Green Economy: A Synthesis

[4] Et al

[5] Melendez-Ortiz, Ricardo (April 2011). Governance of international trade for the green economy, BRIDGES TRADE BIORES REVIEW Vol 5 No 1.

[6] UNECE-FAO (May 2011). Draft Action Plan for sustainable forest management in a green economy.

[7] Hoogeveen, H & Verkooijen, P (May 2011). Transforming Global Forest Governance as part of Beyond Rio +20: Governance for a Green Economy, THE PARDEE CENTER

[8] Et al

[9] Hoogeveen, H & Verkooijen, P (May 2011). Transforming Global Forest Governance as part of Beyond Rio +20: Governance for a Green Economy, THE PARDEE CENTER

[10] UNEP (May 2011). Forests in a Green Economy: A Synthesis

One response to “Rio+20 Briefing #2: Forests and the green economy”

  1. Kimbowa Richard

    For developing countries, forests are closely linked to their value as sources of energy (charcoal and firewood) as well as setting the right conditions for agriculture to prosper (or not) as an ecosystem service. Today the number of people turning to charcoal and firewood in Uganda and i guess in Tanzania due to frequent power outages (arising from inadequate water for the hydro-power generation)is worrying.

    Hence for me forests in a green economy make sense when:

    - the alternative to dependency on forests as a primary source of energy is substantially reduced through promotion of alternatives
    - conservation agriculture is deliberately promoted that: secures sustainable forest management, watershed catchment management and ensuring food security at the same time

  2. Anonymous

Add a comment

Enter your details and a comment below, then click Submit Comment. We’ll review and publish the best comments.