Progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals targets, relating to energy and infrastructure, has the potential to be the most damaging to the world’s forest ecosystems, even though there are a greater number of goals that will be beneficial to forests, according to new research.

Impacts on forests associated with global goals on health, water, sanitation and matters of gender equality remain poorly researched, the authors underscored.

The UN’s 17 key areas for global development – known as the SDGs – range from tackling poverty, hunger and sanitation to promoting clean energy, economic growth and reducing inequality. The research, led by the University of Leeds, reviewed 466 academic papers on the UN targets, collecting 963 examples of impacts.

They found that 63 of the 169 SDG targets were likely to have effects on forests that were either damaging or beneficial, or mixed (ie damaging and/or beneficial depending on context or location) impacts. Of the identified impacts, 29 were potentially beneficial, 15 damaging and 19 had mixed impacts.

“Progress towards some targets will inevitably cause damage to forests,” lead author Jamie Carr of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, told Mongabay-India. “Most typically these relate to infrastructure [in all its many forms]. However, by paying attention to more subtle factors, such as human well-being, access to quality education, the transparency of governments, and the inclusion of all members of society in top-level decision making, these impacts can be mitigated to a significant degree.”

For example, negative impacts were associated with hard infrastructure (SDG 9 targets) including roads, railways, dams, housing and industrial areas. In particular, there is good evidence to suggest that roads designed to boost access to markets are especially damaging for forests.

Almost none of the 17 goals are universally good or bad for forests. The only exception to this is the goal concerning education, for which all impacts were identified as beneficial. Well-being and social progress are also most commonly associated with beneficial outcomes.

“We showed that, of all the SDG targets that are thought to have implications for forests, the number that is beneficial outweighs the number that is bad, but that these are much more poorly understood,” Carr said. “We also showed that a large number of targets can potentially be either damaging or beneficial, depending on other factors. These points highlight an urgent need for more research that can directly inform policy, in order to fully capitalise on opportunities for benefits wherever possible.”

However, he cautioned that none of the above will make meaningful differences if the various sectors (agriculture, energy, health, environment and so on) do not communicate fully with each other. “Part of the original motive of the SDGs was to bring together these various sectors, but much work remains to be done, and this study underlines exactly how important and urgent this is.”

Navigating mixed impacts

The review also identified 55 sources that specifically considered the impacts of development interventions (which could be readily linked to SDG targets) on forests. The 55 sources were research papers, and also some grey literature and accounts from books. From the 55 sources, the researchers extracted 142 impacts relating to 25 SDG targets.

The analysis brought out the complexities of mixed impacts, such as those relating to energy targets (SDG 7) and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16).

SDG targets with identified impacts with high (above) and low (below) associated overall confidence. Bars show cumulative scores for all records found based on the confidence of each. Scores for mixed impacts contribute equally to positive and negative values. Graph from Carr et. al.

While considering increasing people’s access to modern, clean energy (target 7.1), in many cases –especially where people are dependent on fuelwood or charcoal for their cooking needs – providing alternative technologies and fuel sources can have huge benefits that can reduce forest exploitation. “However, many large-scale projects, including those for renewable energies (often thought of as ‘environmentally friendly’) can involve the deployment of large generation plants and other infrastructure, which can be highly damaging to forests,” explained Carr.

A lot of clear examples of SDG targets impacts on forests from South Asia were related to matters of energy (SDG 7). They were mainly of two types. The first type commonly describes large scale energy projects in the region, particularly hydropower (eg aspects of the Mahaweli Development Programme in Sri Lanka, the Parvati Hydro-electric Project, the Sharavathi Valley Project, and a range of other dams in India), which had negative impacts on forests. The second type of commonly encountered paper related to the installation of biogas plants (including in India and Nepal), which show high promise for ways to create clean energy without damaging the environment.

“Deployment of large energy infrastructure is typically damaging, but smaller, more local initiatives can mitigate the ongoing impacts of exploitation of wood for domestic fuel,” added Carr. “It is important to realise this second case is deemed beneficial because it reduced the rate of forest loss/degradation, but this does not necessarily imply that forest conditions will improve – only that they will not get worse.”

Ruth DeFries, a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University in New York, who was not associated with the review agreed with the authors that energy transition away from fuelwood can benefit forests locally.

“A complicating effect is what is known as ‘rebound’ or ‘Jevon’s paradox’,” DeFries told Mongabay-India. “When efficiency increases for some resource, people actually use more of it for a net increased impact. But I do not think that is the case in rural India and a transition to cleaner fuels is a public health benefit as well as for forests.”

DeFries has co-authored research in southern India that showed that the shift from fuelwood to biogas for cooking was associated with the regeneration of degraded forests in Chikkaballapur district in Karnataka in southern India.

The 2017 study by Agarwala et. al. showed that forest regrowth is influenced by soil nutrients and species that are light-demanding, fire-resistant and can thrive in poor soil conditions are favoured.

Restoration of degraded forests constitutes an important component of India’s Nationally Determined Contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. India has a national target of bringing 33% of its geographical area under tree and forest cover while maintaining two-thirds of the area under green cover in mountainous and hilly regions, but certain afforestation schemes face budgetary constraints.

Another study co-authored by DeFries from Bagepalli panchayat (Indian local self-government) in the Kolar district of Karnataka has shown that the transition from fuelwood to biogas also benefits diet diversity and women’s free time.

Beyond energy, Carr and co-authors also found cases for India suggesting that infrastructure and earlier stages of economic growth can damage forests, and (mostly theoretical) suggestions that other factors such as increasing employment (especially off-farm employment), education and better planning can have positive impacts.

The authors write in the study that in cases where infrastructural developments seem likely to cause unavoidable negative environmental impacts, these might be minimised by the adoption of participatory planning which is inclusive of diverse members of society.

Roads, in particular, require careful consideration, and where increased market integration results from new roads (whether intentionally or otherwise) well-enforced policies, laws and other safeguards should be used to prevent overexploitation of nearby natural resources.

Hydropower dams on the Teesta. Photo credit: Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay

For practitioners and policymakers working in the energy sector, the evidence here also suggests the need for careful consideration of the environmental impacts that can result from their work (especially from the associated infrastructure) and supports the need for the development of alternative options that provide clean, reliable energy in ways that minimise environmental damage, they said.

Florian Kraxner, Research Group Leader, Agriculture, Forestry, and Ecosystem Services Research Group at International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, who was not associated with the study, also reiterated the need for a participatory approach in planning.

“To add to such studies, we need to understand the impacts on the ground, particularly the social impacts that are particularly relevant to forests and the SDGs,” Kraxner said. “We need to understand the need of the people to limit damages; use a participatory approach to plan better to minimise damages.”

He noted that the review has been “carefully done” and is useful for policymakers and planners to prioritise progress towards the targets and minimise damages. “However, the review limits anticipated impact to natural forests (and it is unclear whether this means eg primary or unmanaged forests only),” Kraxner told Mongabay-India. “In Europe, for example, most forests that we see today are secondary forests. Additionally, restored and afforestation area, but also plantations and agroforestry need to be considered because they have particular relevance to SDGs.”

Poorly researched areas

Areas that seem particularly poorly researched include matters of health (SDG 3), between-and within-country equality (SDG 10), and water and sanitation (SDG 6). Matters of gender equality (SDG 5), and aspects of education (SDG 4), also appear to be relatively poorly researched, according to the review.

Four of SDG 5’s nine targets were identified as having impacts on forests. Of these, three were assessed as potentially beneficial: targets 5.1 (end all forms of gender discrimination), 5.6 (increase access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights) and 5.a (equal female rights to economic, financial and natural resources, and land/property ownership).

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Numbers following goal names indicate numbers of targets for each. Photo credit: Carr et. al.

Records for target 5.6 were identical to those for the overlapping target 3.7 (ensure access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services and family planning), and the overarching suggestion of these records is that increasing [female] access to family planning and reproductive health services can help address issues of rapid population growth, and hence the demand for land and other natural resources. The authors stressed that the “links between human population growth and environmental quality remain unclear and much-contested”.

Analysis of AidData resource on Official Development Assistance Commitments to the SDGs between 2000 and 2013 (a rough proxy for interventions), revealed that SDGs 5 (gender equality) and 10 (reduced inequality) both received less than 1% of all ODA commitments, and accordingly account for 2% of the total records in the review data, respectively. SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) is by far the most well-funded of the SDGs. This was also well-represented in the researcher’s review data. Conversely, SDG 7 (clean energy) was the focus of 83 (58%) of the 142 records, yet received only $93.9 (7%) of all commitments.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.