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A look into the crystal ball: the future of global forest governance

New study evaluates directions for policy making and research

“Deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates, which contributes significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity,” said the FAO in her “State of the world’s forest report” in 2020. It seems that even though a variety of global forest governance initiatives have emerged over the past 25 years trying to stop deforestation and forest degradation, they have failed to achieve their overarching goal. One example is the UN-endorsed New York Declaration on Forests, which aimed amongst others to halve tropical deforestation by 2020 and recently declared failure. As shown by different scholars, global forest governance initiatives overall remain fragmented, inefficient, and face major implementation challenges. Policy makers thus lack clear evidence of successful anti-deforestation measures and are left not knowing into which basket(s) to put their eggs.

Starting from the assumption that both practical experience and academic analysis of global forest governance initiatives of the past and present hold key lessons, we set out to investigate possible future directions and lessons learnt. With the support of leading researchers and policy practitioners we conducted a so called “Delphi assessment”. While you might connect this to ancient Greek mythology, the Delphi technique is also an established research method and communication process with a panel of experts, consisting of several assessment rounds and feedback loops. In our case we explored the current state of play and future options in 1) expert interviews, followed by 2) an online survey and concluding in 3) a joint workshop. Our newly published paper “Quo vadis global forest governance – the future of global forest governance” (published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy) explains the step-wise approach in more detail. Here we summarize some findings for you.

The current state of play of global forest governance
Where are we starting from? The expert panel evaluated the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, followed by population growth to be the most important challenges today. FLEGT, forest big data/transparency initiatives and zero deforestation/commodity initiatives were perceived to be the most meaningful initiatives. States and governments, followed by the private sector and multinational companies in particular are the most influential actors according to the experts. Thus far, the main effect of global forest governance has been awareness raising for the different values of forests or smallholders and local communities’ forest land tenure rights. A common and supported narrative by the participants calls for market regulation and effective law enforcement to constrain market forces and related overexploitation.

Table 1: Promising initiatives to meaningfully shape the future of global forest governance.

RankMost supported initiatives
1Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT)
2Forest big data / transparency initiatives
3Zero deforestation/commodity initiatives1
RankLeast supported initiatives
20United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF)
19Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF)
18United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2017-2030

Likely and desirable directions for global forest governance
Where do we go from here? In the most desirable future of global forest governance, according to the experts, cooperation between different governance initiatives and processes is better streamlined. In contrast, the most likely future of global forest governance holds that forest issues remain largely in the shade of other prominent topics, such a climate change or migration, especially if states are facing (economic) crises. Yet, experts expect that the advancement of information technology will provide new opportunities for transparency in the sector. According to the experts, research should, be done in a transdisciplinary, collaborative manner, involving scientists, practitioners, policymakers and other stakeholders.

Lessons learnt to shape future global forest governance

Following the assessment, we derived some lessons learnt also considering academic literature. Here are some things to bear in mind for future research and policy-making:

1. States matter, after all: supportive regulatory frameworks are imperative

Despite an overall “fatigue” with multilateral forest governance processes and institutions, an explicit international framework and structures provided for by states are important to enable other actors by providing mandates and framework conditions to act.

2. New alliances for old problems: issue-specific “coalitions of the willing”

In the context of an increasingly multipolar world, new issue-specific coalitions across continents with countries that are willing to advance certain aspects of global forest governance hold big promise.

3. “High politics”: using salient issues as leverage

Initiatives such as FLEGT, which are linking forest issues with trade as an issue of “high politics”, are perceived as most promising due to the associated political visibility, options to build alliances with critical policy sectors, and related broad political commitment.

4. Sustainability leadership: self-confident rule-setting supporting the public good

In opposition to a “laissez faire” approach, sustainability leadership of states with a focus on the public goods character of forests and their properties (e.g. biodiversity, climate impacts) following advanced sustainability standards can be decisive to advance forest governance globally, and to eliminate incentives that trigger deforestation. States that pick this up more quickly might have early mover advantages.

5. “Pecunia olet”: responsible investments as a mainstream requirement

The financial sector has not yet been strategically targeted enough to support good forest governance and tackle deforestation and forest degradation. Increasing demands from consumers and institutional investors might trigger more (sustainable) forest investments.

6. Hypes for political momentum: providing leverage for long-term sustainability

New initiatives and topics in global forest governance, like zero deforestation and forest landscape restoration, hold potential as they provide new windows of opportunities for global forest governance. At the same time, technical knowledge and established networks are needed to ensure that they do not remain of short-term symbolic nature.

7. Grey is key: informal markets need to be acknowledged and targeted

A large part of the global forest economy is characterized by informal activities, employment and related livelihoods which need to be more actively considered in global forest governance. This requires taking into account advantages and disadvantages of strategies of formalising the informal sector.

8. Clarifying tenure: devolution towards more inclusive tenure and use rights

Although there is an increased awareness for the clarification of (forest) land tenure rights, their devolution is still a contested matter between different tiers of government in many countries. Further support from the international donor community will have to find ways of accommodating existing concerns, including state sovereignty.

9. Formalise legitimate participation: inclusive “glocal” decision-making

So far global forest governance decision making is largely exercised by governments without meaningful participation of local communities, civil society and the private business sector. More “glocal” modes of decision making towards meaningful participation of key stakeholders has the potential to substantially increase the legitimacy of global forest governance efforts.

10. Harnessing “big brother”: opportunities for transparency through big data

New technological developments such as remote sensing, big data and the application of new information technologies also by large numbers of citizens, can greatly increase the transparency of global forest governance initiatives. Yet, these developments also entail risks, such as the possibility of manipulating data, the possession of data and technologies mainly by private companies, as well as the possibility to increase inequity and surveillance, which needs to be considered.

What does the future of global forest governance look like for you? Tell us your vision in the blog!

You can find the experts assessment in the following paper:

Begemann, A., Giessen, L., Roitsch, D., Roux, J. L., Lovrić, M., Azevedo-Ramos, C., Boerner, J, Beeko, C., Cashore, B., Cerutti, P. O., de Jong, W., Fosse, L. J., Hinrichs, A., Humphreys, D., Pülzl, H., Santamaria., C., Sotirov, M., Wunder, S., Winkel, G. (2021). Quo vadis global forest governance? A transdisciplinary delphi study. Environmental Science & Policy, 123, 131-141.

1 Meanwhile issued as EU Communication (2019) on Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forests.

Photo by Firos nv on Unsplash

Photo editing: Rosa Castaneda


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