Breathing Life into Global Sustainability Goals

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, could be considered a strategic plan for humanity. They set ambitious targets – economic, social, cultural and environmental – to promote human rights.

The goals were crafted to engage all member countries – which are expected to integrate the SDGs into their policies for the next decade and a half – in addressing the root causes of global poverty, gender inequality and climate change.

Rainforest Alliance president Nigel Sizer knows from experience that the most fascinating aspects of the SDGs are in the details. In his previous role as director of the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Programs, he gave technical input into the SDGs in relation to the world’s forests. As our organization’s new leader, he explains below how the Rainforest Alliance is an instrumental player in bringing to life this vision of a sustainable future.

What is the difference between the SDGs and their predecessor, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals?

With the MDGs, sustainability issues were explicitly addressed within one or two of the stated goals, but with the SDGs, sustainability infuses nearly all of them. Even the name indicates the fundamental recognition of the importance of sustainability to a more equitable world. It’s a vastly improved and detailed set of targets for the exact issues that we focus on here at the Rainforest Alliance.

Of the 17 SDGs, which ones are most closely aligned with the Rainforest Alliance’s work?

As I said, most if not all of the goals intersect in some way with the Rainforest Alliance’s efforts, but some are more deeply tied to our work than others. Number 15 (life on land), for example, is extremely relevant. Among other important topics, that goal specifically speaks to protecting and restoring forests and sustainable management of forests. That is at the core of the Rainforest Alliance’s work.

That goal in particular has very ambitious targets.

Yes! There is a 2020 target to halt deforestation. That is truly astounding language attached to a date not very far in the future. It would be ambitious as a 2030 goal, so for it to be a 2020 goal is impressive. The language here in the SDGs is actually stronger than what was used in the New York Declaration on Forests, which was seen as very bold at the time.

Rainforest Alliance President Nigel Sizer

Rainforest Alliance President Nigel Sizer

Is the Rainforest Alliance’s work on pace with the SDGs’s ambitions?

If you look at the work we’re doing with the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Agriculture Network standards, the bases of Rainforest Alliance certification, those standards are quite clear in requiring zero deforestation. So, when we’re out there certifying agricultural and forest products, we are already well ahead of the SDGs. Any company’s supply chain that is consistent with our standard goes above and beyond what’s being mandated by the SDGs. The work that we’re doing in community-based forest management in Guatemala is also very much in line with these elevated standards. There are near-zero deforestation rates in the forest concessions we work with in and around the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

How does geography figure into how – or if – these goals are met?

In some countries, in temperate regions, you’ve already got net reforestation. Forests are regrowing on old abandoned agricultural land. The eastern United States, parts of Scandinavia and New Zealand are great examples of that. Those countries all have highly developed economies. You also have a group of countries that are very much in transition. These are countries, like Costa Rica, that have had significant rates of forest loss that are now turning the corner. These countries are in an interesting position between “emerging” and “developed”. For them, the SDG targets are inspiring and achievable. You’ve got other countries with very high forest cover like Papua New Guinea, Suriname, the Amazon region and the Congo Basin countries. It’s notable that they signed onto this. For them, it will be a challenge, and they would benefit from both international help and visionary leadership from within.

How does the Rainforest Alliance move forward given these challenges in different countries?

What we need to do is expand our engagement so we can help many more of our collaborators become aligned with what the SDGs are trying to achieve. There’s an awful lot of work to be done to help companies, communities and countries come in line with the SDGs. It’s not just about becoming sustainable; it’s about reversing destructive trends and actually regreening and restoring health to ecosystems across the planet. Fundamentally, that’s what the Rainforest Alliance is all about.

People collecting dirty river water

Around the world, 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day.