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International Forest Governance and Policy: Institutional Architecture and Pathways of Influence in Global Sustainability

Chair of Forest and Environmental Policy, University of Freiburg, 79106 Freiburg, Germany
Chair of Silviculture, University of Freiburg, 79106 Freiburg, Germany
Fenner School of Environment & Society, The Australian National University, Canberra 2601, Australia
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2020, 12(17), 7010;
Submission received: 20 July 2020 / Revised: 18 August 2020 / Accepted: 22 August 2020 / Published: 27 August 2020
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Global Environmental Policy and Governance in Sustainability)


This paper reviews the design of the international forest governance and policy, and analyses its impacts in addressing deforestation and forest degradation as global sustainability issues. Informed by literatures on international relations, regulatory governance of global commodity production, and international pathways of domestic influence, key arrangements are aggregated into six types, and mapped in terms of their main aims, instruments, and implementation mechanisms. Key analytical dimensions, such as the actors involved (state–private–mixed), the character of legal authority (legally binding–non-legally binding), and the geopolitical scope (global–transnational) helped to identify the potential and limitations of arrangements. They were assessed and compared in terms of their main pathways of influence such as international hard-law rules, cross-sectoral policy integration, non-legally binding norms and discourses, global market mechanisms, and direct access through capacity building. Our results reveal important challenges in the design and implementation, and in the pathways of influence, of the forest governance arrangements, including major inconsistencies with forest-adverse economic sectors. We conclude about the need for coherent international forest-related policy cooperation and integrative actions in agriculture, bioenergy, and mining to enhance the prospects of achieving the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

1. Introduction

Forests still cover about 30% of the world’s land area and provide people and nature with essential ecosystem services and goods across local, national, regional, and global scales, including biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, water protection, food and energy, wood, and other raw materials for forest-based industries and bio-economy value chains [1]. Forests contribute to nearly all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations’ (UN) Global Sustainability Agenda [2,3,4,5,6]. More explicitly, forests are addressed by SDG 15 “Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss” [7].
Despite their importance worldwide, forests continue to be converted into other land uses and degraded. Approximately 13 million hectares of natural forests are lost every year, particularly natural forests in the tropical countries of the global South and the Boreal zone of Eurasia in the Global North [5,8]. The direct drivers are mostly human-induced land use transformations: Large and small scale agriculture for food commodities (e.g., beef, soy, palm oil, cacao, coffee), mining, urban and infrastructural development; and to lesser extent, illegal and/or unsustainable production and trade of wood (e.g., industrial roundwood and sawnwood, fuelwood, pulp, and paper) and non-timber (e.g., rubber, wildlife) forest products [9,10,11].
A variety of International Forest Governance and Policy Arrangements (IFGAs) have been developed to foster the protection and more sustainable management of forests [12]. However, the limited problem-solving effectiveness of these arrangements is evident, given that deforestation and forest degradation persist at high levels, and the global community is not on track to meet agreed sustainable development targets [13,14].
To date, much scientific and (other) expert effort has been dedicated to study IFGAs leading to important but largely unresolved scholarly debates. A set of studies [15,16,17,18] describe the nonexistence of a global forest policy regime and/or its growing institutional fragmentation leading towards a “regime complex” and policy conflicts. Together with the reinforcement of national sovereignty, these institutional characteristics are argued to be the main causes of regime non-effectiveness. In contrast, other studies [12,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26] point to the emergence of an effective international forest governance as result of the growth of transnational non-state efforts and erosion of national sovereignty and synergetic interactions between state and non-state regulation.
This article seeks to add value to this scholarly debate by suggesting an innovative classification of IFGAs that helps to better describe and analyze their policy and institutional design, as well as their intervention logics and pathways of influence with important implications for effectiveness. This paper allows for a systematic, nuanced, and balanced assessment of three research questions: (i) What are the institutional architectures of the key IFGAs? (ii) How are IFGAs designed and implemented to influence (domestic) policy and target group behavior towards positive change? (iii) How effective are IFGAs in achieving the SDGs?
Empirically, this study is informed by a thorough review of the academic literature as well as content analysis of policy documents that are cited in the main text. In addition, a set of interviews with key experts representing international/UN intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), member state authorities, environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society and social rights organizations (CSOs), forest and landowner organizations, producer associations, traders, and forest-related industry companies (firms and industry associations) were analyzed. In Appendix A, the list of the main interviewees is provided. All interviews and analysis were subject to ethical principles and applicable personal data protection rules (hereafter referred to as “interviews” only). The qualitative research design of data collection and analysis were subject to inter-coder agreement, data triangulation, and peer review to strengthen the relevance, validity, reliability, and resilience of the main findings.

2. Conceptualization of International Forest Governance and Policy

From an international relations and global governance perspective, IFGAs represent “sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations” [27] (p. 186). Taken together, they are “loosely linked together, sometimes mutually reinforcing but at other times overlapping and conflicting” [28]. Effective IFGAs are a matter of the contributions that governance institutions make to channel policy response and target group behavior in such a way to eliminate or substantially ameliorate the problem(s) that led to their creation [29].
The term ‘international’ generally applies to any type of forest and forest-related governance and policy activity among any type of actors that goes beyond and cuts across national boundaries [30]. By building on and further complementing previous studies [12,18,20,26,31], this paper only considers key IFGAs addressing forests and global sustainability. They can be found in “international law, soft law, and non-government performance-based measures, some are explicitly forest-focused, others more indirectly related to forests” [12] (p. 15).
Building on the literature on regulatory governance of global commodity production [32,33], we suggest classifying the variety of IFGAs through two analytical dimensions that represent constitutive elements of governance institutions [34]: The first dimension refers to the direct participation and leading role of state actors (e.g., national governments, state authorities, public entities, IGOs) and/or non-state actors (e.g., NGOs, CSOs, firms and industry associations, scientists). It can be specified in three (sub-)categories: “State actors only”, “non-state actors only”, or “state and non-state actors”. The second dimension covers the claims of (legitimate) authority that steers policy and behavior change, including the degree of formal compulsion of regulation. It draws on two (sub-)categories: “Legally binding” (e.g., “hard law” such as legally binding multilateral agreements, supranational public law, or multi- or bilateral trade agreements or private law of setting rules and performance standards) and “non-legally binding” (e.g., “soft law” such as non-binding declarations by states and IGOs or voluntary commitments, principles of industry self-regulation, codes of conduct, corporate social responsibility).
Consistent with the international relations and global governance literature [30,35], we suggest an additional two-tiered geopolitical dimension that allows for analyzing IFGAs in relation to key issues of national sovereignty and policy scope/coverage with implications for the analysis of influence and effectiveness. Its specification ‘multilateral’ refers to interactions between states only with a global geopolitical issue coverage, whereas ‘transnational’ covers a narrower-than-global scope of geopolitical issue coverage, but includes interactions across and beyond national boundaries between state and non-state actors, or only among non-state actors.
Together, the institutional and geopolitical dimensions allow classification and mapping of the variety of IFGAs into a taxonomic system of six general governance types: (1) Global multilateral treaty regimes (state actors, hard law); (2) global non-binding multilateral agreements (state actors, soft law); (3) transnational regulatory governance (state and non-state actors; hard law); (4) transnational public–private partnerships (state and non-state actors; soft law); (5) transnational non-state market driven governance (non-state actors; private regulation); and (6) transnational private sector governance (non-state actors; industry self-regulation).
Next, the IFGA’s main goals, means, and mechanisms of steering policy and target group behavioral change were analyzed. This analysis of policy design (policy outputs) and implementation (policy outcomes) was informed and guided by the scientific literature on international pathways of domestic influence in complex global governance [20], and enhanced by work on sustainable development policy and governance [36,37,38]. By this, the main arrangements, and by aggregation the governance types, were assessed and compared with regard to their underlying logics of policy and behavioral change intervention. This helped not only assess the IFGA’s influence, understood as the most appropriate variable for studying effectiveness, but also to verify the preceding analysis of their institutional and governance architecture. This is as the “shift from a focus on ‘compliance’ and ‘effectiveness’ to ‘influence’ facilitates analysis (…) because complex global environmental governance arrangements may contain both elements that make strong authority claims clearly demarcated as law and means and mechanisms that can influence domestic policies or behaviors but fall short of such claims.” [20] (p. 586).
In line with the aforementioned literatures, main five international influence pathways, or logics of domestic policy and behavioral changes were analyzed:
(1) The “international rules” pathway refers to the influence of issue-specific multilateral hard law treaties or private law standards resting on consent, coercion, or empowerment. The logic is that substantive rules (e.g., objectives, implementation, reporting, and verification commitments), and also norms and discourses codified as rules in law, are binding on state and non-state actors, and create a pull towards compliance based on state or non-state authoritative sources and legitimacy; (2) the “cross-sectoral policy integration” pathway works with institutional procedures, participatory processes, and coordination mechanisms. Their logic is to demand from and rely on the willingness and capacity of state and non-actors in a given policy sector to consider relevant substantive rules in another policy sector in order to avoid cross-sectoral trade-offs/conflicts (“win–lose”, “lose–lose”) and activate mutual synergies (“win–win”); (3) the “international norms and discourse” operate with the internalization of non-binding but potentially influential socially-accepted normative expectations of appropriate and legitimate domestic behavior, and diffusion of dominant ideologies and cultural discourses and practices. The main drivers are persuasion or contestation in social interaction and discursive exposure to the main concepts, problem definitions, and problem solutions that are (re-)produced in soft law and within actor networks and agents of normative change. When entrenched in hard law, institutionalized norms and discourses can exhibit the rules influence logic; (4) the “international markets” pathway influences domestic policy and behavioral change through positive or negative economic incentives. Global market mechanisms and supply chain interventions can provide or deny market demand and access, revenues, price premiums, compensation payments, and firm recognition. According to this economic logic, domestic actors change their policy and firm-level behavior to capture material benefits or avoid substantial costs; (5) the “direct access” pathway influences domestic policy and firm level change through capacity building. This logic works with direct funding from donor countries in the Global North to recipient countries in the Global South for “know-how” and technological transfer, demonstration, and training projects through the international cooperation and multi- or bilateral official development assistance. Resting on institutional emulation and policy-oriented rational learning, capacity building aims to respect the national context and change domestic policy and business actors through the diffusion of policy ideas, business models, and management technologies.

3. Classification and Mapping of International Forest Governance and Policy

The launch of international forest governance and policy can be traced back to the 1980s and early 1990s, a time of accelerating trade globalization coupled with a globalizing environmental movement and science concerned over the loss and degradation of tropical forests [39,40]. In this time, and as a result of the 1987 Brundtland Report to the World Commission on Sustainable Development, international forest governance came to be developed as an integral part of global sustainability defined as equal consideration of economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality goals to meet present and future generations’ needs [41].

3.1. Type I: Multilateral Legally Binding Agreements and International Treaty Regimes

3.1.1. Global Forest Convention (Failed)

The Earth Summit, held in Rio in 1992, marked a turning point with the adoption of three global environmental conventions at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, see below). At this time, a coalition of national governments, particularly of developed countries, were also pushing for a legally binding global convention on forests that would provide a centralized, normative authority over the forest sector as a whole, thereby reducing the adverse transboundary impacts of deforestation and forest degradation [12]. However, a coalition of the majority of developing countries (the G77 and China) were opposed so that no such agreement was reached. In 1995, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which had been created in 1992 under the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to ensure effective follow up to UNCED, established the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF). In 1997, the CSD set up the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF), to continue the work of the IPF. The forest convention debate resumed at the CSD meeting in 1995 and was taken up once again at the fourth and final session of the IFF in 2000. States’ positions shifted at both negotiations meetings, with some developed and developing countries, and IGOs now in favor of a convention to certain conditions (finances). However, key countries, including Brazil and other members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) and the United States remained skeptical and opposed a global forest treaty. After the failure to agree on a global forest convention, states and IGOs reached a procedural compromise and created the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) for further intergovernmental deliberations (see below). Until now, governments negotiating under the UNFF have found no global consensus for a legally binding convention, with more countries, including African and many European Union (EU) countries, moving away from this policy idea ([12]; interviews).
Several sticking points reflecting the opposing preferences among states and IGOs prevented agreement. One revolved around competing understandings of sustainable forest management (SFM) with priorities put either on “sustained economic yield”, “multifunctional forestry”, “ecosystem management”, or “social forestry” [interviews]. Opposing developing countries also argued that industrialized countries were pressing for a convention as a way to influence the management of tropical forests, leading to adverse socio-economic consequences, while refusing to acknowledge sustainability problems in their own forests. This argument related to the issue of the refusal of “Northern countries” to offer “Southern countries” financial compensation for opportunity costs of higher forest protection and SFM standards [interviews]. Developing countries claimed that many industrialized countries had already exploited their forests as part of their economic development and that it was inequitable to ask developing countries to forego the same opportunities without adequate compensation [12]. Another sticking point was the issue of national sovereignty or the unwillingness of many national states, both developing and industrialized, to subjugate a degree of national control to global authority ([17]; interviews).

3.1.2. Tropical Timber Agreement

The International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA) is a succession of intergovernmental legally binding agreements negotiated under the UN system. These agreements were agreed between developing states that produce tropical timber commodities (“producer countries”) and industrialized states that consume these products (“consumer countries”). The first ITTA was signed by national states in 1983 and entered into force in 1985. A second ITTA was negotiated in 1994 and entered into force in 1997. The third and actual ITTA was agreed on in 2006 under the UN Conference on Trade and Development. It is valid until 2021 after it had entered into force in 2011. The ITTA is administrated by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) comprising of “producer” and “consumer” member countries. Its decision-making authority is the International Tropical Timber Council (ITTC), which consists of all members of the Organization [42].
The 2006 ITTA’s main policy goals are to promote the expansion and diversification of international trade in tropical timber from sustainably managed and legally harvested forests and to promote the sustainable management of tropical timber producing forests. To achieve these goals, a mix of information and economic policy tools are used. They include demonstration, capacity building, and “know-how” transfer projects, guidance and information, timber trade monitoring and statistics, the promotion of tropical timber and non-timber forest products, and the encouragement of non-state market driven forest certification [42]. ITTO’s core strategy is to develop Criteria and Indicators (C&I) for SFM based on expert-driven processes, and to assist tropical countries on voluntary basis, from national to project levels, to measure and report on progress towards SFM ([43] (p. 11); interviews).

3.1.3. United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), opened for signatures at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and entered into force in 1993, is an international environmental legally binding treaty under the UN. After 10 years of scientific and NGOs’ advocacy disclosing a global biodiversity crisis, mainly related to tropical deforestation and forest degradation, and after four years of intergovernmental negotiations, the CBD was finally agreed upon in 1992 in Nairobi and ratified later by most national states (signed by but never ratified by the USA) and IGOs (e.g., the EU) [44].
Enabled by the global political support for and integrative discourses on sustainable development triggered by the Brundtland report, states and IGOs agreed on three legally-binding policy goals for the CBD. They include (i) the conservation of biological diversity; (ii) the sustainable use of its components; and (iii) the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources [45]. These are further elaborated and specified as agreed upon at meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COP). The most important for forests are the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Strategic Goals and Targets that are included in the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 as adopted at COP-10 in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. Aichi targets 5 and 7, that are generally reinforced by the forest-related SDGs, require that “by 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation is significantly reduced” and “areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity” [46].
National biodiversity strategies, plans, or programs (NBSAPs) and the expanded program of work on forest biological diversity (POW) are the main policy tools for global forest biodiversity conservation [47]. The general and forest-specific biodiversity goals of the CBD are to be integrated into other policy sectors (e.g., forestry, agriculture). This cross-sectoral policy integration has to be facilitated by consultative mechanisms for implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and periodic revision ([48]; interviews).
The expanded POW on forest biodiversity contains 27 objectives, 12 goals, and 129 actions arranged around three priorities: (i) Conservation, sustainable use, and access and benefit sharing; (ii) institutional and socio-economic enabling environment (governance); and (iii) knowledge, assessment, and monitoring [48]. Key policy targets refer to establishing, maintaining, and developing forest set-asides and protected forest areas networks that shall ecologically connect and effectively conserve at least 10% of the earth’s forests. Ecosystem Management of all types of forests and protected forest areas are the key implementation tools. Periodic national reporting is the only CBD mechanism for monitoring the national-level implementation of NBSAPs and the POW [interviews].

3.1.4. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), opened for signature at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and entered into force in 1994, is an international environmental treaty agreed to by most national states and IGOs (e.g., the EU). The main legally-binding goal of the global climate protection accord is “the stabilization of greenhouse-gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” [49]. Additional legally binding multilateral treaties, such as protocols or agreements, have been adopted to specify and implement the global climate accord.
Through the Kyoto Protocol (KP), adopted in 1997 in Japan and entered into force in 2005, states and IGOs committed for first time legally binding to reduce GHG emissions within two periods (2008–2012; 2012–2020). Countries acknowledged that they have different capabilities in combating climate change, owing to the differences in their economic development. According to the KP, forests and forestry should play a key role in climate change mitigation. After intensive scientific and expert deliberations, states and IGOs agreed that forests and forestry can act not only as (i) sinks sequestering carbon, for example through afforestation, forest growth, close-to-nature and continuous cover forest management, and timber products, but also as (ii) sources of carbon dioxide emissions, for example through deforestation, forest degradation, and forest fires [50]. Therefore, the main policy tools of the KP to implement the UNFCCC included a legally binding obligation for all signatories towards accounting, monitoring, and reporting of GHG emissions/sinks from the Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) sector. While this legal obligation covered only “direct human-induced land-use change and forestry activities, limited to afforestation, reforestation and deforestation” (Decision 1/CP.3, 1997), countries could also commit to account for emissions/sinks from (sustainable) forest management [interviews].
In 2015, states and IGOs adopted the Paris Agreement (PA) that entered into force in November 2016. It is the new multilateral climate treaty with a legal force on all participating countries for the Post-Kyoto implementation of the UNFCCC after 2020. The main principle of the PA is that “each party should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of GHG, including forests” [51]. Through the PA, countries committed to the aim to keep the increase of global warming below 1.5 °C, not least through a significant contribution of the LULUCF sector. Signatories are obliged to formulate and implement their commitments in the form of nationally determined contributions (NDCs). They have to include accounting rules and tools such as quantifiable information on reference point (base year), time frames and periods of implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, and methodological approaches of how countries consider their NDCs as fair and ambitious given national circumstances, and contribute towards the UNFCCC goal [51].
For space limitations, and due to their relatively low to moderate relevance as IFGAs, as judged by experts [interviews], we do not deal with the CITES and UNCCD treaties in this paper (but see [12,20]).

3.2. Type II: Multilateral Non-Legally Binding Agreements

International Arrangement on Forests

Despite or because of their repeated failures to agree on a global forest convention (Type I) during and after the 1992 Earth Summit, states and IGOs have found a common ground in the so-called International Arrangement on Forests (IAF). While the IAF partly originates from Type I, it mainly consists of several sub-elements that are based on non-legally binding multilateral agreements (Type II). In the early stage during the 1992 UNCED, states and IGOs adopted two policy documents directly related to forests. These were the “Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forests”, known as the “Forest Principles”, and Chapter 11, “Combating Deforestation” of (Sustainability) Agenda 21. The latter highlighted forest loss as a recognized global concern but contained no mechanisms that would commit states and IGOs to its reversal [12,26].
In 2007, states and IGOs adopted the UN Non-Legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests (NLBI; renamed as the UN Forest Instrument—UNFI in 2015). Hereby they agreed for first time on a global common definition of sustainable forest management, SFM [interviews]. In context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), states and IGOs adopted in 2017 the UN Strategic Plan for Forests (UNSPF) for the period 2020–2030 [4].
The IAF’ main (non-legally binding) policy objective, as framed in the aforementioned policy documents, refers to strengthening political commitment and action at all levels to effectively implement SFM. To enhance the contribution of forests to the SDGs, states and IGOs formulated in the UNSPF six Global Forest Goals and 26 targets to be reached by 2030, which remain voluntary. The goals include: (i) Reverse the loss of forest cover worldwide through SFM, including protection, restoration, afforestation, and reforestation, and increase efforts to prevent forest degradation and contribute to the global effort of addressing climate change; (ii) enhance forest-based economic, social, and environmental benefits, including by improving the livelihoods of forest-dependent people; (iii) significantly increase the area of protected forests worldwide and other areas of sustainably managed forests, as well as the proportion of forest products from sustainably managed forests; (iv) mobilize significantly increased, new, and additional financial resources from all sources for the implementation of SFM and strengthen scientific and technical cooperation and partnerships; (v) promote governance frameworks to implement sustainable forest management, including through the UNFI, and enhance the contribution of forests to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and (vi) enhance cooperation, coordination, coherence, and synergies on forest-related issues at all levels, including within the UN system and across member organizations of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, as well as across sectors and relevant stakeholders [4].
The voluntary policy tools of the IAF include national implementation progress reports towards SFM, the elaboration and implementation of National Forest Programs (NFPs), as well as sustainability Criteria and Indicators (C&I) for SFM. NFPs strived to render forest policy decision-making participatory, more oriented to the long term, and better coordinated across sectors [52,53].

3.3. Type III: Transnational Hybrid Regulatory Governance

3.3.1. FLEGT: Transnational Timber Legality Regime

Since late 1990s, international attention began to shift from the wider but contested goal of SFM to the narrow goal of legality assurance in forestry and global timber supply chains [54]. The transnational timber legality regime emerged out of a cooperation between state actors, NGOs, and (multinational) firms in developed countries to curtail the global issue of illegal logging and related trade (IL). The common ground reflects the (imperfect) convergence of different interests and values in addressing diverse but interrelated issues such as biodiversity loss, climate change, local communities’ inequalities, distortions in global market competition and timber prices, and shrinking governmental and firm revenues ([16,20,23,55]; interviews).
By designing transnational hybrid regulatory governance, states and IGOs regained a key regulatory competency, while NGOs and firms continued to play an important role in agenda setting and implementation ([17]; interviews). These initiatives were engineered primarily at the regional, bi-lateral, and (supra-)national levels, rather than at the global level, hence escaping UN requirements for global consensus among sovereign states [56]. The regime consists of supply side and demand side instruments. Their main policy aim is to combat IL practices in producer countries caused by poor forest law enforcement (e.g., contradictions in or breaches of forest law, corruption) and weak governance (e.g., non-participation and disempowerment of non-state actors) connected with international trade with and consumer markets in industrialized countries [interviews].
The EU and its member states first adopted the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan in 2003, supported by the EU’s FLEGT Regulation in 2005. These introduced bilateral FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs). While the initial choice to enter negotiations is voluntary, FLEGT VPAs are legally binding political and trade agreements between the EU, acting on behalf of its member states (consumers), and tropical countries (producers). Each VPA process consists of national discussions, working groups, collaborative committees and negotiations among participating state and non-state actors. The ultimate aim, and a main condition to grant tropical timber products a FLEGT license from the EU to allow their entry on its market, is to set up an effective national timber legality assurance system. Each system consists of a national definition of (il)legal timber, state-sanctioned rules and procedures for verifying control of timber supply chains, tools for verification and the capacity to use them including licensing by a national authority, and independent audits. Further important aspects are public access to information and forest sector reforms. EU provides technical assistance and capacity building to support state and non-state actors in the VPA countries ([23]; interviews).
In 2008, the USA amended the 1900 Lacey Act with the adoption of the Legal Timber Protection Act (LTPA). The promulgation of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) in 2010 and the Australian Illegal Logging Prohibition Act (ILPA) in 2012 followed. These three demand side policies and tools (i) prohibit the placing on the consumer markets of illegally sourced timber products where legality is defined as any activity in breach of applicable laws in the supply side countries (EUTR, ILPA, LTPA) or both supply and demand side (LTPA) countries; (ii) oblige and empower firms and industry associations to manage risks in global trade with illegally sourced timber products by the exercise of due diligence along global supply chains (LTPA, EUTR, ILPA). They also empower (iii) state authorities to control and sanction non-compliant economic operators and (iv) NGOs, firms, and industry associations to invoke regulatory controls based on substantiated concerns and evidence, and perform monitoring and third party verification ([57,58]; interviews).

3.3.2. REDD+: Transnational Climate and Forest Regime

After years of difficult negotiations, coalitions of developed and developing states and IGOs participating in the UNFCCC agreed in Article 5 of the 2015 legally-binding Paris Agreement on two goals: That they (i) should conserve and enhance sinks and reservoirs in forests and (ii) encourage themselves to take action to implement and support the existing framework for REDD+ [51]. The acronym stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (+) in developing countries. Already in 2010, and after years of expert and political debates, the 2010 Cancun Agreements on REDD+ were adopted. Primarily, the Cancun Agreement provided states, IGOs, NGOs, firms, and scientists with guidance on a phased implementation approach: From plans and implementation through project and national-level “readiness” activities (phase 1 and 2) to results-based activities (phase 3)—and listed the systems and information that developing countries need to undertake REDD+ activities. These included a national plan, a national reference emission level, a robust and transparent national forest monitoring system, and a system for providing information for how “safeguards”—such as respecting indigenous peoples’ rights and avoiding harm to biodiversity—are being addressed and respected [59]. However, state and non-state actors’ actions largely remain outside of the UNFCCC until discussions about appropriate methods for tracking and financing national mitigation actions are completed ([17]; interviews).
REDD+ is the first global regulatory governance process that promises to directly address the variety of direct drivers of deforestation and forest degradation contributing to climate change [17]. The intervention logic is to make the maintenance of tropical forests (economically) more valuable than their conversion to alternative land-uses such as agriculture, food production, and bioenergy—hence deterring deforestation and forest degradation—by creating a financial value for the carbon stored [60]. In return, countries participating in REDD+ would receive payments for verified/certified emission reductions and removals, either through a market-based or governmental-based mechanism ([26]; interviews).
The “safeguards”, as stated in the main text and elaborated on in an appendix of the Cancun Agreements [59], should address controversies over and risks in the prioritization of carbon forestry and economic preferences over environmental and social values [17]. These concerns for environmental integrity were raised by a (tacit) coalition of NGOs, CSOs, and (industrialized) states’ and IGOs’ biodiversity experts. They referred to issues of whether REDD+ would incentivize the centralization of state authority, fuel corruption, favor intensive forestry and fast-growing tree plantations over biodiversity in natural forests, and lead to land grabbing by the state and private sector at the expense of indigenous and local community rights ([61,62]; interviews).
REDD+ has pursued the “phased approach” as a main policy tool to address these challenges over time. Displacing decisions about REDD+ over time and across levels of governance has led to their de facto displacement across a number of state and non-state organizations outside the UNFCCC, each with different rules and procedures [17]. IGOs such as the UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN Environment Program (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the World Bank, and developed states (e.g., Australia, Germany, Norway, the UK, and the US) offer REDD+ programs and funds to support regional and bi-lateral partnerships with developing countries for “readiness” activities (Arts et al., 2019). In addition, NGOs and the private sector are involved in designing and investing in REDD+ projects, developing certification schemes to verify carbon and non-carbon performance, as well as working with governments on voluntary standards for REDD+ ([63]; interviews).

3.4. Type IV: Transnational Public-Private Partnerships

3.4.1. The Bonn Challenge

The Bonn Challenge is a transnational collaborative partnership that was launched in 2011 by the German Federal Ministry of Environment Protection and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Later, their coalition with the CBD, the World Resources Institute, and other like-minded actors successfully set the partnership on the political agenda, receiving strong political momentum through endorsement at the 2014 UN Climate Summit [64]. Based on an informal declaration of intent and core belief in a gigantic (environmental and socio-economic) restoration potential of 2 billion hectares globally [65], the main policy aim of the Bonn Challenge is a global effort to restore 160 million hectares of the world’s degraded landscapes and forestlands by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030. The Bonn Challenge is not a new global commitment, but rather a practical approach of realizing many international sustainability commitments, including the CBD Aichi Target 15, the UNFCCC REDD+ goal, the Rio + 20 land degradation neutrality goal, the SDG 15 goal, and the 2014 NYDF. It is seen as a contribution to national priorities such as water and food security and rural development while contributing to the achievement of international climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation commitments [66].
The main governance approach is the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration (GPFLR). It brings together industrialized and developing states, IGOs, and non-state actors working towards the restoration of degraded and deforested lands. Its main intervention logic is to gather knowledge on restoration, facilitate assessments, and support the Bonn Challenge commitments. Through active engagement, collaboration, and the sharing of ideas and information, the GPFLR seeks to promote an integrated forest landscape restoration approach (FLR). This approach highlights the need to align competing sectoral interests and values such as biodiversity conservation or commodity production in the management of land at multiple scales and across various sectors. Collaborative multi-stakeholder processes should bring together all relevant stakeholders to talk, plan, and decide, thereby ensuring political buy-in from state and non-state actors. The approach is to restore ecological integrity and improve human well-being through (i) reforestations integrated into mosaic landscapes of forestry, agriculture, water management, biodiversity conservation, and urban settlement, or (ii) wide-scale restoration for conservation in remote areas [67].

3.4.2. Tropical Forest Alliance and the New York Declaration on Forests

Founded in 2012 at Rio + 20, The Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) includes many of the companies in the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), as well as governments and NGOs. It was launched after the CGF committed for the first time to zero net deforestation by 2020 for palm oil, soy, beef, and paper and pulp supply chains in 2010. The CGF partnered with the US government to create this public-private alliance with the mission of mobilizing all actors to collaborate in reducing commodity-driven tropical deforestation [68].
In September 2014, a broad coalition of 37 governments, 20 sub-national governments, 53 multi-national companies, 16 CSOs representing indigenous communities, and 63 NGOs signed the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit. The Declaration is a voluntary and non-legally binding political statement. Among others, and besides FLR goals, the Declaration’s main objectives refer to or further specify some of the already existing international forest-relevant goals. These are (i) to halve the rate of natural forest loss by 2020 and to strive to end it by 2030, (ii) to eliminate deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, and paper products by 2020; (iii) to support REDD+ as agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement framework, (iv) to strengthen FLEGT initiatives while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, and (v) to integrate ambitious, quantitative forest conservation and restoration targets for 2030 in the post-2015 SDGs. A voluntary Action Agenda accompanies the Declaration, providing “a guide to governments, companies, and organizations regarding the diverse set of actions that can achieve [the Declaration’s] transformational goals” [69].

3.5. Type V: Transnational Non-State Market Driven Governance

3.5.1. Forest Management and Timber Supply Chain Sustainability Certification

Sustainability certification of forest management, later to include also timber product supply chains (CoC), emerged in early 1990s as a non-state market driven forest governance (NSMG) after the failure of states and IGOs to agree on a global forest convention. At the time, certification represented an alternative to and a shift away from NGO’s market boycotts of tropical forest products, which were believed to be counter-productive [70]. In 1993, and for first time, forest management certification under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) scheme was designed by a transnational non-state actor coalition of NGOs, CSOs, and some large multinational firms. The main policy goal was to address deforestation mainly in the tropical and some Boreal regions, as well as global forest degradation worldwide by rewarding “responsible” forestry and timber supply chains [19]. The main tools included a voluntary or NGOs pressure invoked choice by economic operators for third party auditing and eco-labelling in line with a (legitimate binding) private law consisting of principles, C&I, and standards for SFM. The enterprise checks are carried out by third party auditors (e.g., consultancies, scientists) accredited by a non-state rule-setting organization, but financially paid for by the economic operators themselves. In return, certified companies would receive positive incentives such as privileged access to (ecologically sensitive) consumer markets in industrialized countries, including price premiums, as well as improved firm reputation and social license to operate granted (or withdrawn) by NGOs and CSOs [19].
Since the late 1990s, an ideological and market competition between the FSC and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) has emerged. PEFC is a global alliance of a country-level SFM certification schemes led by non-state and state forest enterprises, domestic forest industries, and some multinational companies (receiving a tacit support of governments). This industry-led non-state market self-regulation emerged to pre-empt (over-)regulation by and in reaction to the FSC, which many saw as a threat to economic interests and SFM because of its standards and the decision-making power it granted to environmental and social values ([71,72]; interviews).

3.5.2. Sustainability Certification of Food Supply Chains

Sustainability certification of the production and supply chains of forest-risk agricultural commodities (beef, palm oil, soy) also belongs to the type of NSMG. While many initiatives have developed, we present here mainly those that share similar governance designs and pathways of influence with the forest certification. While we do not repeat these similarities here, important differences regarding global forest sustainability are summarized.
Since 2002, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has been established and developed by NGOs and CSOs in cooperation with oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, and banks/investors to set and implement global sustainable palm oil rules including a global set of principles, criteria and indicators, and national standards. The RSPO certification rules prohibit the conversion of primary (natural) forests, but not of other types of (managed) forest. Palm oil plantations can be established by clearing secondary or degraded forests and converting them to palm oil plantations. Still, plantings have to leave out high-conservation-value areas (e.g., endangered species, fragile ecosystems, areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities) and to avoid peatlands ([73,74]; interviews).
Since 2006, the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) was founded and developed by NGOs, CSOs, think tanks and consultancies, big soy producers and traders in tropical countries, some developed countries’ food market retailers, and banks. The RTRS standard for responsible soy production prohibits the conversion of ‘native’ forests including primary, disturbed, and secondary forests. Any (forest) vegetation less than 10 meters in height can be converted as long as areas with high conservation value are avoided. Most participating countries have much lower thresholds for the height of ‘forests’ where the high threshold ensures that soy can be grown with little restriction in woodlands ([73,74]; interviews).
Since 2010, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) has been founded and developed by NGOs, CSO’s, think tanks and consultancies, livestock producers, traders and processing industries in tropical countries, big consumer market retailers in industrialized countries, allied industries, and national or regional sustainability initiatives. The GRSB principles and criteria call for the protection of native forests. However, the scheme does not include indicators or means of verification, which would be required to underlie sustainability certification. Rather, indicators and related practices would be developed through regionally based processes ([73,74]; interviews).

3.6. Type VI: Transnational Private Sector Partnerships

Sustainable and/or Legal Supply Chain Initiatives

Over the last years, an increasing number of private companies and industry associations get involved in sustainable supply chain initiatives (SSCI), including deforestation-free commodity and/or timber legality supply chain initiatives. They voluntarily commit to the main policy goals of eliminating or reducing deforestation or illegally sourced products from their business operations and supply chains, especially as regards forest-related commodities from agriculture (e.g., beef, palm oil, soy) and forestry (e.g., timber, pulp, and paper). Some (large multinational) companies also voluntarily commit to biodiversity conservation on their or their suppliers’ lands and quantification and reduction of GHG emissions from land use change ([75]; interviews).
The rules and goals of, and norms and discourses about, state and non-state actors led policies under the UNFCCC such as NDCs and REDD+ and the FLEGT provide the main motivation for private sector companies’ zero deforestation and legality verification work. The number of private sector commitments, including also multi-stakeholder initiatives, has greatly increased in recent years, with at least 760 public commitments by 447 producers, processors, traders, manufacturers, and retailers as of March 2017. The majority of corporate pledges are supported by the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) representing 400 companies across 70 countries, which collectively employ nearly 10 million people and have sales of more than US $3 trillion [75].
Firms and industry associations use five market-based tools for implementing their voluntary commitments and industry self-regulation: (i) Certified commodity procurement, (ii) procurement from low-risk jurisdictions, (iii) incorporating (public/private) environmental protection policies into their commitments, (iv) direct forest area observation and remote sensing monitoring systems, and (iv) transparent progress reporting [73,75]. The sustainability pledges are part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies that have been embraced by companies not only to meet society’s normative expectations to mitigate potential losses of critical environmental services, but also and mainly in pursuit of economic growth strategies to improve branding and consumer loyalty, reduce reputational risk, increase market shares and profits, and ensure long-term commodity supply ([74] interviews).
Table 1 provides an overview of the classification and mapping of the key IFGAs.

4. Pathways of Influence

Based on the above descriptions of policy and institutional design, Table 2 provides a comparative overview of the main pathways through which the types and arrangements of international forest governance and policy (should) influence domestic policy and firm-level change in order to address deforestation, forest degradation and sustainability related issues worldwide.

4.1. General Observations and Patterns

None of the IFG types or arrangements are designed and implemented according to a single intervention logic alone: Mostly two to three logics are at work. Overall, economic incentives and positive market interventions prevail across and within all types. Policy integration and non-legally binding norms and discourse are given overall least importance, but somewhat bigger roles within some types. Legally binding rules/compliance and direct access play somewhat moderate roles. The main pathways of influence seem to be mostly in line with the two main institutional characteristics of the IFG types (e.g., legally-binding rules prevail in types I, III, and V; non-legally binding norms in types II, IV, and VI, markets in types III-VI; legally binding rules, markets, and direct access in type III). Less often, but striking, institutional features and influence logics seem to be at odds with each other (e.g., non-legally binding norms, markets, and direct access in type I, policy integration in type IV).
Below, we provide further empirical evidence to shed more light on these patterns by a comparative analysis across and within IFG types and arrangements, and along pathways of influence.

4.2. International Rules

Looking at the intersection of type I and the pathways of influence, the results show that there are no forest-specific authoritative state-sanctioned compulsory rules of global geopolitical reach. In the absence of a Global Forest Convention (Type I), and in view of the soft or legally non-binding international norms of SFM in type II, deforestation and forest degradation issues worldwide are not addressed by forest-focused governance and policy. Instead, they are addressed by the multilateral biodiversity conservation and climate protection legally-binding treaties striving for environmental protection of ‘global commons’ and the international tropical timber trade agreements based on economic logic. This remains a challenging task for various institutional shortcomings, as summarized below.
For example, the effectiveness of the CBD and UNFCCC has been often hampered by the inability of states and IGOs to implement their own rules, goals, and agreements, often paralyzed by inter-sectoral and inter-agency conflicts in developed and developing countries, inexistent/ineffective implementation and compliance mechanisms, state capture or corruption, and lower awareness, involvement, and legitimacy by target non-state actor groups [interviews].
Taken together, all remaining IFG arrangements that populate (rules-based) types III and V have an advantage of a comprehensive policy issues coverage. They not only seek to achieve specific forest goals (legality, sustainability, conservation), but also to tackle key direct drivers of deforestation and forest degradation such as forest adverse food production (e.g., palm oil, soy, beef/cattle) and illegal/unsustainable forest production (e.g., timber, fuelwood, pulp, and paper). An additional, potentially important, institutional advantage is the involvement of state and non-state actors with their complementary resources and capacities (e.g., decision-making authority, expertise, legitimacy, money, market power). With their comprehensive and specific policy issues scope, they are perceived to be potentially more influential than the state-led arrangements in types I and II ([76]; interviews).
However, IFGAs under III and V types are also facing institutional challenges that limit their domestic influence. Unlike type I (and II), these arrangements face a limitation in their transnational (vs. global) geopolitical scope, inherent in their design and implementation. Similar to type I (and other types) arrangements, they also struggle to implement and enforce their own (state or private) rules and standards, mainly due to national interests, lower state and non-state capacities, conflicting forest tenure rules, state capture or corruption [interviews]. Furthermore, and when assessed individually, hybrid legality regulations (type III) and private sustainability standards (type V) do not just have a single-commodity scope (timber, soy, palm oil), but also very different substantive requirements and, in particular, different definitions of forest that contribute to the fragmentation of regulatory approaches (see below).
To illustrate, the supply side EU FLEGT VPAs (type III) has been a protracted process: After 15 years of negotiations with the EU, only Indonesia is implementing the licensing regime required to place timber products on the EU market. Six tropical countries signed FLEGT VPAs, but are still not ready for implementation. Further countries are still negotiating with the EU. Many key developing or transitioning countries such as Brazil, Peru, China, India, and Russia have not decided to enter into negotiations. The domestic influence of the demand-side timber legality regulations of the EU, USA, and Australia (Type III) has been mixed at best. These laws have increased the awareness of the problem of illegal logging among demand side economic operators and timber traders, and spurred some behavioral adaptations, especially among biggest multinational companies like procurement of certified or legal products, change of suppliers, own field checks. At the same time, state enforcement capacities and resources (staff, money, time, expertise) dedicated to checks on economic operators and sanctions in cases of non-compliance appear disproportionately low. Coupled with inherently low awareness and capacities among economic operators, weaker enforcement even in those demand side developed countries limits the deterrence effect on global trade in illegal timber ([76,77]; interviews).
Likewise, the policy effectiveness of REDD+ (type III) to invoke a positive transformative change has been hampered, and is likely to remain so in the future. For a range of reasons, including its phased approach, REDD+ is subject to institutional complexity, ambiguity, and fragmented decision-making [78]. Robust national regulation to guarantee observance of forest carbon accounting rules and socio-ecological standards are still widely lacking. Established monitoring mechanisms are dominated by non-local actors, and little progress has been made in developing adequate enforcement mechanisms for applying sanctions. Thus, in cases where violations or when safeguards are ignored, it is very difficult to sanction the responsible land user in a way that puts a stop to the violations and adequately compensates those suffering damages ([17]; interviews).
After 25 years of transnational efforts, the policy effectiveness of forest sustainability certification (Type V) on tackling deforestation and forest degradation and driving changes towards SFM has been limited, too. Despite tropical deforestation and forest degradation being the major impetus behind its creation, forest certification has had limited uptake (below 5–10%) in most developing countries, both in absolute numbers of hectares certified and as a percent of the forest estate [76].
The rules pathway is also difficult to travel to achieve positive change because the arrangements under type I, III, and V pursue partly conflicting rules as codified in their legal norms and/or performance standards. They refer to biodiversity conservation in forests (CBD/FSC), carbon forestry (UNFCCC/REDD+), sustainable and/or legal timber trade (ITTA/ITTO/FLEGT), forest (FSC/PEFC), and risk food sustainability (RSPO/RTRS/GRSB).
Variations in substantive and procedural rules, resulting in “race to the top” or “race to the bottom” within and between timber legality (type III) and forest and forest risk commodity sustainability certification (type V) make progress towards SDGs difficult to identify [interviews]. For example, national FSC and PEFC schemes differ in their socio-ecological and economic standards, often triggered by competition for political support and market uptake. Countries’ FLEGT VPAs differ from another in their rules about definitions of timber legality, legality verification systems, governance and policy actions, and participation of state and non-state actors, depending on their national interests [interviews]. The substantive and procedural rules of food commodity certification schemes are not designed and implemented to guarantee effective zero deforestation, mainly because of dodgy definitions, flaws of private auditing, and market (dis)incentives [54,73,74].

4.3. Cross-Sectoral Policy Integration

Challenges remain due to the absence of an effective cross-sectoral forest policy integration at the global scale. To illustrate, none of the forest-specific arrangements in type I (ITTA), type II (IAF), type III (FLEGT, REDD+), type V (forest and forest risk commodity NSMD) and type VI (deforestation free supply chains initiatives) are integrated and directly mentioned by the UN as relevant and key governance process to achieve SDG 15. Only CBD and the UNFCCC (Type I) are directly mentioned as foundation for global forest action, but tensions between both remain. The intended cross-sectoral integration of IFGAs under the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) is challenged by institutional, ideological, and interest-related conflicts and “toothless” coordination mechanisms [interviews].
Despite high expectations, the impacts of CBD’s cross-sectoral environmental policy integration pathway of influence remain low. This is as its forest-related implementing means and procedures, such as the Expanded Program of Work on Forest Biodiversity, are only vaguely formulated, remain non-legally binding and inactive for years, and meet with lower legitimacy from the forestry and land use sectors in both developing and developed countries [interviews]. While states and IGOs, supported by NGOs and scientists, have put enormous efforts to integrate biodiversity and social rights safeguards from CBD (type I) into the UNFCCC and REDD+ (types I and III) [79], the socio-environmental integrity has been challenged due to cross-sectoral conflicts and implementation challenges [interviews].
Similarly, the state and IGOs-led IAF (type II) has had lower domestic impacts through cross-sectoral policy integration. The core implementing instruments, the National Forest Programs, or equivalent strategies, have not been initiated or elaborated either symbolically or redesigned to serve traditional sectoral interests (e.g., timber use for the bioeconomy) rather than to improve or achieve comprehensive (ecological and social) sustainability goals [80]. This was even found in sustainability “first-mover” jurisdictions in the Global North such as France, Germany, Sweden, or the Netherlands [81,82], or the European Union [83].
Often, the use of biological resources such as forests is the productive foundation of powerful economic sectors (e.g., agriculture, forestry, mining) which tend to resist the effective integration of environmental and social concerns into their economically-oriented sectoral policies. This is done by rejecting the formulation of operational targets, negating or postponing time frames for implementation and monitoring procedures, or by promoting ‘business as usual’ targets, or symbolic and counterproductive integration of goals, instruments, and practices [14].

4.4. International Norms and Discourses

In the void of missing global forest convention rules, the IAF (type II) is the only state-led arrangement with a global reach and forest specific focus, but its domestic impact remains low. This is partly because, by design and implementation, its soft norms on sustainable forest management remain non-legally binding on states. This means that states and IGOs have no (legal) obligation or mandate to take action to implement those international norms. Domestic policy and firm level impacts depend hence on the long-lasting internalization, institutionalization and materialization of key policy ideas, social norms and discourses of forest sustainability. However, competing worldviews that correspond with competing global forest-related norms and discourses lead to a variety of different perceptions, priorities and shared norms regarding the sustainable use or preservation of forests. Worldviews inherent to the SDGs reflect the variety of ‘cultural biases’ in domestic forest policy across the world ranging from free-market sustained yield forestry to rule-based sustainable forest management or forest biodiversity protection, or participatory ecosystem management and social forestry [6,84]. This variety of social norms and discoursed have led to a variety of partly very complex, partly missing, or competing expert understandings and political priorities of sustainable forest management, including criteria and indicators, in Central Africa (COMIFAC), South America (ACTO), Europe and Russia (FOREST EUROPE), and the boreal (Montreal Process) and tropical (ITTO) countries ([85]; interviews).
Likewise, public-private (type IV) and private sector (type VI) voluntary arrangements, by their design and implementation, suffer from the lack of legal obligations and sanction mechanisms for non-compliance. Understood as not legalized norms and not institutionalized discourses, they contain voluntary commitments with a lower ambition than the existing forest biodiversity, deforestation and forest sustainability rules and obligations under the CBD (e.g., Aichi Targets), the UNFCCC/REDD, and FLEGT. Critics fear that they serve to legitimize business-as-usual forest destruction practices by postponing time frames and lowering down official commitments [86].

4.5. International Markets

Paradoxically, the ITTA/ITTO’ (Type I) institutional rules have often limited the effective promotion of sustainable forest management worldwide through its economic logic of positive global market interventions. Most decision-making powers are allocated according to a country’s share in the international tropical timber trade. By this geopolitical constrain, the increasingly important role of intermediate countries such as China, India, Vietnam, or production powers such as Brazil and Russia in global timber supply/demand as well as of domestic markets and the informal economy is diminished albeit known to have a greater impact on (il)legal logging and related timber trade. The limited geopolitical coverage of the ITTA/ITTO (Type I) comes together with a limited policy coverage: Promoting SFM and sustainable tropical timber trade does not directly address the major drivers of deforestation as they are to be found in agriculture, mining, urban sprawl, and hence outside the forestry sector [interviews]. Similarly, paradoxical counterproductive impacts can be seen in FLEGT arrangements (type III). Due to market bans and (costly) requirements for economic operators to exercise due diligence to eliminate illegal timber in global trade, the timber legality laws in the EU, USA, and Australia have been contributing to market and supply chain shifts leading to policy “race-to-the bottom” and market leakage. This relates to increased trade of tropical timber on environmentally less sensitive and less regulated import/export markets (e.g., China, India) and national/local markets ([54,77]; interviews).
Likewise, zero-deforestation voluntary commitments by companies (type VI) are insufficient to achieve positive impact due to policy and market leakage, selective adoption, design and implementation failures, lack of transparency and traceability, and smallholder marginalization. Leakage occurs when interventions with a limited geographic scope restrict the production of commodities in one place, therefore decreasing supply of those commodities and encouraging displacement of production to other locations. Certified food and timber commodities (type V arrangements) often include products originating from illegally and legally converted forests, degraded forests, and illegal forest production entering the global supply chains [54,73,74].
REDD+ (Type III) has been ineffective for a number of reasons, including issues of (non-)credible “reference levels” [78,87]. Due to financial and market benefits, participating tropical countries have incentives to inflate their estimates of business-as-usual deforestation rates, or even increase deforestation in practice, since this would allow them to claim greater reductions in these rates than with more conservative/realistic estimates, hence to sell “hot air” or reap double funding. There is still significant controversy about whether the REDD+ funds should come from private/market or public sources. Ultimately, the lack of an agreed global market framework for carbon emissions reductions has de facto limited emission trade to a voluntary level and pilot projects, ineffective to address the problems ([17]; interviews).

4.6. Direct Access

Under the rules-based IFGAs (types I and III), developed countries and IGOs have provided developing countries with important critical support through capacity building and technological transfer projects. This direct access pathway has had mixed impacts, however. On the one hand, state and IGOs-driven processes and mechanisms of mostly bilateral development cooperation explicitly share the Sustainable Development Goals and recognize the principle of environmental sustainability. National level state and non-state actors’ awareness of forest issues and capacities to design responses (e.g., SFM, FLEGT, REDD) through technology, participation, and learning have been increased [24].
On the other hand, important implementation limitations, gaps, and unintended results still exist. For example, while Germany and other EU industrialized countries (e.g., Netherlands, Norway, UK) have been among the largest donor countries, funds related to tackling deforestation, forest degradation, forest climate protection, and forest conservation represent a rather marginal proportion of the overall official development assistance (ODA) budgets. In practice, forest-related economic, social, and environmental stated goals are not necessarily mutually supportive or may be even contradictory. In consequence, there is an uneven allocation of ODA resources showing a specific emphasis for regulatory and market action to foster sustainable forest management, and only very little on forest protected areas and forest risk food commodities. Only a small proportion of funding prioritizes improvement of local livelihoods of forest dwellers. International forest development cooperation often suffers from frequent changes in decision-makers and technical staff as well as by political power relations and public disputes in the donor and receiver countries. Thus, the capacity building and technological transfer activities by donor countries show strong alignment with the priorities of the national partners, often trapped in state capture or corruption, reflecting more selective and pragmatic political and economic considerations rather than comprehensive sustainability goals ([88]; interviews).
The donors are also highly industrialized import dependent countries showing extremely high forest and land use footprint due to their forest-adverse commodity consumption patterns (e.g., timber, fuelwood, palm oil, soy, beef, minerals, oil, and gas). States and IGOs promote economic growth to improve economic and social well-being of people around the world through facilitation of global trade and economic cooperation and infrastructural large-scale investments. National laws of most recipient countries include hence the possibility for legally authorized clearing of large tracts of forest land to support these strategic economic investments [14,89,90]. All of this has serious counterproductive implications for effectiveness.

5. Conclusions

This paper has reviewed the design and influence of international forest governance and policy arrangements, with the aim of better understanding their bewildering variety and limited or contested effectiveness in addressing persistent global sustainability issues such as deforestation and forest degradation. Our systematic analytical approach allows us to better understand the gaps and puzzles immanent in the unsettled disputes among scholars and experts, and their arguments about the implications of the increase vs. decline in national sovereignty, and the conflict/fragmentation vs. collaboration/interaction among state and non-state actors, and policies, and effectiveness vs. non-effectiveness.
In short, our analysis confirmed that important efforts have been made in institutional development and governance and policy progress worldwide. Global forest governance arrangement is dynamically evolving, and key features such as national sovereignty and international cooperation among state and non-state actors have been changing. This testifies to important positive international influences on domestic policies and behavior of target groups.
At the same time, our findings revealed important challenges to positive transformative change and effectiveness that are rooted in major inconsistencies in two interrelated political loci: In the design, implementation, influence, integration, and coordination within and between the existing IFGAs; and, even more important, in influential forest-adverse governance arrangements outside the IFGAs.
The analysis showed that, although ambitious in discourses, IFGAs represent either the lowest common denominator in agreement between state and non-state actors, or exhibit profound differences between specific forest and forest-related sustainability goals and governance approaches. That the initiatives reviewed pursue a sustainable forest management, forest biodiversity conservation, forest climate mitigation, timber legality verification, and/or sustainable trade in timber, or a zero gross deforestation in agricultural commodities makes a profound difference in impacting on forest protection and therefore on potential effectiveness in tackling deforestation and forest degradation. It can be argued that this multiplicity of approaches pursued is one of the causes hindering effectiveness of the assemblage of various IFGAs, that allows firms to forum-shop for the most suitable instrument for their (economic) interests. In addition, the partial confrontation and partial strategic cooperation between state and non-state actors tend to serve partly shared, partly diverging self-interests, ideologies (values, beliefs), and power resources, resulting in lower overall effectiveness than intended.
These findings suggest important needs for global action towards better mutual coherence and more targeted influence, and a greater visibility and comprehensiveness of forest issues in the SDG’s, governments’, and non-state actors’ agenda. This requires more explicitly, and honestly, addressing and managing underlying trade-offs and synergies between forest-related environmental protection, social equity, and economic development in the quest for global sustainability. There is a strong need to make international forest-related cooperation more coherent, and to integrate actions outside the forest sector (e.g., in agriculture, bioenergy, and mining) with those of forest governance, and vice versa. Without such an effort, it will be difficult to comply with the ambitious agenda of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Finally, this paper comes with some limitations in its substantive/geographical focus. It does not include a thorough analysis of some key innovative instruments working mainly at the national level with potential global effects such as moratoria of forest risk agricultural commodities (e.g., Soy Moratorium, “G4 Cattle Agreement” in Brazil) among the reviewed international forest governance and policy arrangements. We hence suggest further research to map out the design and implementation of these moratoria and assess their pathways of influence. Our analytical framework should be useful to not only analyze their distinct governance features (e.g., multi-party, mainly non-state actor processes and agreements using a mixture of “hard law”-like quasi-voluntary commitments and private regulation through economic pressures from industry/retailers and normative/moral pressures from NGO campaigning), but to also assess their main pathways of influence (e.g., norms and discourses, markets) as potential effective governance tools and multiplicators in other sustainability contexts and sectors (i.e., the Cocoa and Forest Initiative).

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.S. and B.P.; methodology, M.S.; software, M.S.; validation, D.K., P.K. and B.P.; formal analysis, M.S.; investigation, M.S.; resources, M.S. and B.P.; data curation, M.S.; writing—original draft preparation, M.S.; writing—review and editing, B.P., D.K. and P.K.; visualization, M.S.; supervision, D.K.; project administration, B.P. and M.S.; funding acquisition, B.P. and M.S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) through the Potsdam Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e. V. (IASS) and the German Science Platform Sustainability 2030 (project grant number 52320.0835-18-151).


We acknowledge the technical support of Laila Berning. The article processing charge was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Albert Ludwigs University Freiburg in the funding programme Open Access Publishing.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

Table A1. List of interview partners.
Table A1. List of interview partners.
OrganizationPosition of Key Informant
FAO HQ Rome, ItalyProgram Director UN Sustainable Development Goals
FAO HQ Rome, Italy Head of Forestry Department
FAO HQ Rome, ItalyForestry policy officer
FAO HQ Rome, ItalyForestry policy officer
Former UNFF forest policy officer
FAO HQ Rome, Italy Program Officer
Donor Relations and Resource Mobilization Team
FAO Latin America Secretariat Chile/PeruSenior Forest Policy Expert, Regional Director
UNFF, Secretariat New York, USAForest Affairs Officer
CBD, Secretariat Montreal, CanadaForest Biodiversity Policy Officer
UNCCD, Office Rome, ItalyProgram Director
UNFCCC, Secretariat Bonn, GermanyProgram Director
International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), Liaison Unit in JapanAssistant Director Trade and Industry
Forest Market Policy Officer
The World BankSenior Forest Program Director
World Resources Institute, Washington, DC, USAHead of Program
UNECE, Geneva, Switzerland Forest Policy Officer
Montreal Process on C&I for SFM, Liaison Office in Japan
FOREST EUROPEDirector FOREST EUROPE, Liaison Unit Slovakia
EU FLEGT/REDD Facility, Barcelona, Spain Director and several policy officers (FLEGT & REDD)
EU Commission, DG Environment (x 3)Multilateral environmental agreements as well as FLEGT/EUTR policy officers
EU Commission, DG Development Cooperation EU FLEGT and development cooperation policy officer
EU Commission, DG TradePolicy officer
European Forest InstituteHead European Forest Policy Network
Central African Forestry Commission (COMIFAC), Executive Secretariat, Yaoundé, Cameroon Forest Policy and Development Cooperation Expert
Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO)
Tarapoto process secretariat, Brasilia, Brazil
Forest Policy Expert
The State Forestry Administration, P. R. China
China, Beijing, China
Forest policy expert, international forest policy affairs, Montreal Process
All-Russian Institute of Forestry Technology, Moscow, RussiaHead of Division, international forest cooperation, Montreal Process
Federal Ministry of Environment, Brasilia, Brazil (x 2)Policy officers
Federal State Forest Service, Brasilia, Brazil Former Head of Unit, independent forest policy expert
Forestry Commission, GhanaForest Policy Expert
Natural Resources Canada, Ottawa, Canada Science Forest Policy Advisor
US Forest Service, Washington, DC, USA Associate Deputy Chief
Former Head of UNFF
US Department of State, Washington, DC, USAFormer International Forest Policy Negotiator
Independent international consultant
Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Bonn, Germany Head of Unit International and European Forest Policy
Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Bonn, GermanyHead of Unit International and National Forest Biodiversity Policy
FERN—Forest Environmental NGO, Brussels, Belgium and UKDirector
Greenpeace International, Amsterdam, Netherlands,Forest Policy Expert
WWF Europe, Brussels, Belgium Forest Policy Expert
FSC International, Secretariat Bonn, GermanyChief Forest Policy Expert
European Timber Trade Federation, Berlin, GermanyChief Forest Policy and Law Expert
European Forest Owner and Forest Industry Associations, Brussels, Belgium (x 3)Secretary-Generals (x 2) and Program Director
Timber exporting companies, Ghana (various locations) (x 3)Timber trade and supply chain managers
European Agricultural Commodity Industry Associations, Brussels, Belgium (x 2)Agricultural trade and supply chain policy experts
Multinational Agricultural/Food Production Companies, Brazil (various locations) (x 3)Agricultural trade and supply chain policy experts


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Table 1. International forest governance and policy arrangements: Taxonomy of basic types and mapping results.
Table 1. International forest governance and policy arrangements: Taxonomy of basic types and mapping results.
Sustainable Development
Brundtland Report—UNCED in Rio/Rio + Process—Millennium Development Goals
UN Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals
Direct participation of actorsState actorsAuthority/Degree of Compulsion
Legally-BindingNon-Legally Binding
Type I: Multilateral treaty regimes
(International hard law)
Type II: Non-binding multilateral agreements
(International soft law)
UN conventions and treaties
Global Forest Convention (failed)
International Arrangement on Forests (IAF)
Chapter 11 Agenda 21, Forest Principles
SFM C&I regional processes
State and non-state actorsType III: Transnational regulatory
governance (Hybrid regimes)
Type IV: Transnational public-private partnerships (Collaborative institutions)
FLEGT: Timber legality regime
REDD+: Climate and forest regime
The Bonn Challenge
The Tropical Forest Alliance
New York Declaration on Forests
Non-state actorsType V: Transnational non-state market driven governance (Private regulation)Type VI: Transnational private sector partnerships (Industry self-regulation)
Forest supply chain sustainability certification
FSC (NGOs and industry), PEFC (industry)
Food supply chain sustainability certification
RSPO (palm oil), RTRS (soy), GRSB (beef)
Sustainable supply chain initiatives (industry)
Consumer Goods Forum
Table 2. International forest governance and policy: Pathways of influence.
Table 2. International forest governance and policy: Pathways of influence.
Main Intervention Logics and Impact Pathways
Governance and Policy ArrangementsRulesPolicy IntegrationNorms and DiscourseMarketsDirect Access
Type I:
Type II:
Type III:
Type IV:
Bonn Challenge X(X) X
Type V:
Type VI:
1 X- Main intervention logic; (X). 2 Intervention logic present, but less prominent.

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Sotirov, M.; Pokorny, B.; Kleinschmit, D.; Kanowski, P. International Forest Governance and Policy: Institutional Architecture and Pathways of Influence in Global Sustainability. Sustainability 2020, 12, 7010.

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Sotirov M, Pokorny B, Kleinschmit D, Kanowski P. International Forest Governance and Policy: Institutional Architecture and Pathways of Influence in Global Sustainability. Sustainability. 2020; 12(17):7010.

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Sotirov, Metodi, Benno Pokorny, Daniela Kleinschmit, and Peter Kanowski. 2020. "International Forest Governance and Policy: Institutional Architecture and Pathways of Influence in Global Sustainability" Sustainability 12, no. 17: 7010.

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