Report: The merits and feasibility of an international taiga agreement

The taiga is a natural resource of enormous scale, with great value for wildlife and all of humanity. It provides a range of vital ecosystem services at local, national, regional, and global levels. Its role in global carbon sequestration and as a driver of precipitation makes the protection and sustainable management of the taiga a relevant issue for international environmental law and policy efforts. The taiga is – as many forest ecosystems – threatened by deforestation, fragmentation, and the impacts of climate change, but currently subject to less attention than tropical forests. Some of the main threats against the taiga are likely to become more acute in the future. Addressing these dangers ought to be an important domestic and foreign policy concern, notably for the circumboreal countries.

Yet, the question of how the taiga should be managed – how its conservation and ecosystem services could be protected while simultaneously allowing for the utilization of its resources – is mired in uncertainty. Currently, all the circumboreal states are taking a range of measures to protect and manage their forests in a sustainable manner. However, there are large knowledge gaps with respect to how specific protection and forest management regimes impact the taiga’s ability to deliver ecosystem services for current and future generations. There is also a need for more evidence, research, and awareness about how protection and forest management regimes may help prevent or mitigate the threats of deforestation, fragmentation, and the impacts of climate change.

There exists a wide range of global arenas, instruments, and mechanism related to the protection and sustainable management of the boreal forests, including UNFCCC, CBD, species- and habitat-oriented frameworks, and forest-oriented frameworks and initiatives. There are also several regional and cross-regional initiatives in which the protection and management of parts of the taiga is – or has been – directly or indirectly considered.  

Over the last decade, the circumboreal countries have sought to strengthen their cooperation on issues more specifically related to the boreal forest. The 2018 Haparanda ministerial declaration and the work carried out in the UNECE/FAO Team of Specialists on the Boreal Forests have, in conjunction with the research efforts done by IBFRA, generated an understanding of the protection and sustainable management of the taiga as a common concern among the circumboreal countries. The proposal made by members of the Team of Specialists to organize a second ministerial conference and elaborate a joint action plan on the boreal forests suggests that cooperation between the circumboreal countries may be further strengthened in the coming years.  

Yet, circumboreal cooperation on issues related to the boreal forests is, in a business-as-usual scenario, likely to reach a saturation point. Although available evidence suggest that the taiga plays an extremely important role as a global carbon sink, this has not yet been translated into a clear understanding of the protection and sustainable management of the boreal forests – as opposed to forests in general – as a transboundary concern in need of new international regulation. There is, in other words, not yet a clear understanding among the circumboreal countries of how their forest protection and management practices impact – negatively or positively – the goal achievement of other countries. Moreover, while there is currently no dedicated legally binding instrument regulating the protection and sustainable management of the taiga, it remains questionable whether a clearer understanding of the taiga as a global carbon sink would warrant a boreal-specific legally binding response. Other avenues, including the consideration of new boreal-specific initiatives within the UN Forum on Forests, the UNFCCC and the CBD, would likely have to be seriously explored before a separate legally binding instrument on the boreal forest could become a viable proposal. 

Finally, there are important aspects to the interests of the circumboreal countries that would likely delay or hamper efforts to seek ‘thicker’ forms of cooperation on the taiga. This does not mean, however, that such forms of cooperation, including a boreal-specific legally binding instrument, may not become possible in the future. To make this a credible proposal, however, more work will likely need to be done to raise awareness and build an understanding of boreal-forest protection as a transboundary concern. Civil society and other non-governmental actors would also, in partnership with government representatives and other officials, have to create an international policy environment more propitious to new and innovative proposals. This should be accompanied by a plan for how such a proposal may be achieved. 

This report, commissioned by WWF Norway, suggests some concrete actions that can be taken by civil society actors and other stakeholders interested in strengthening the protection and sustainable management of the taiga. Creating change at the international level is, however, an art and not a science. While there is no blueprint for how a legally binding taiga agreement can be achieved, past and ongoing international advocacy and communication efforts provides important lessons.