SDG15: The fight for life on land

clock • 20 min read

Progress on protecting life on land has been agonisingly slow, as deforestation and habitat loss has accelerated, but hopes remain that a step change in global land management can yet be engineered

We often take the land for granted, even though - or perhaps because - it is literally the foundation of everything we do, from the materials that make up our homes, workplaces, and transport systems to the source of our food, water, and medicines. And those are the only the most obvious essential services provided by the land. When well managed the land helps regulate water and air quality, sequester and store carbon, and minimise flood and soil erosion risks. On top of that, the land plays host to much of the planet's biodiversity, providing incalculable benefits to humanity and the global economy, starting with the pollination that underpins the global food system.

The problem is that terrestrial ecosystems can quickly flip from sources of life-sustaining abundance into actively hostile environments when they are exploited unsustainably. Soil erosion, wildfires, floods, monocultures, and pollution can all pose a serious threat to life and the viability of the economies and communities that are dependent on the land. And then there are the big picture climate threats that poorly managed land can rapidly amplify. As the World Resources Institute points out, "land is critically important - both as a source of greenhouse gas emissions and as a climate change solution". The reality is that the land-based foundations of both the global economy and a stable climate are being eroded from beneath our feet. 

That is why SDG15 - the UN goal to protect "life on land" and to "protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss" - is regarded by many commentators as one of the most important of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cristiana Pașca Palmer, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, points out that "while all the SDGs are important in themselves and for the achievement of the others, biodiversity is clearly the linchpin between all of them. Essentially, without biodiversity, we would not exist, let alone develop".

To take just one example, an estimated 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood and they are home to more than 80 per cent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants, and insects, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In addition, 74 per cent of the poor are directly affected by land degradation globally and over 80 per cent of the human diet is provided by plants, with just three cereal crops - rice, maize and wheat - providing 60 per cent of humanity's energy intake.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes in characteristically understated fashion, land "provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and well-being, including the supply of food, freshwater and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity". The group even puts a valuation on land's contribution to the global economy in its report on Climate Change and Land, calculating that land ecosystems and biodiversity contribute some $75tr to $85tr to the global economy, far more than global GDP. It is an intriguing academic exercise that highlights the critical economic importance of healthy terrestrial ecosystems and is part of a growing body of work to assess how natural systems enable sustainable economic development. Although critics will note that, given that presumably without land the planet would be a dusty, lifeless husk, the $85tr figure is ultimately pretty meaningless.

And yet despite the huge clear and present threat to critical environments, every year the global economy puts ever more pressure on global ecosystems and biodiversity. The Global Footprint Network calculated that in 2019, Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity has used nature's resource budget for the entire year, was reached on July 29, the earliest date ever. The global economy first went into ecological deficit in the early 1970s and over the past 20 years, the date has advanced by three months. Human civilisation is now "using nature 1.75 times faster than our planet's ecosystems can regenerate, [consuming resources] equivalent to 1.75 Earths," the network says.

Farming has transformed the planet's landscapes | Credit: ThachSanh

This inherently unsustainable level of consumption is having multiple real world impacts. "Ecological overspending costs are becoming increasingly evident: deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leading to climate change and more frequent extreme weather events," says Mathis Wackernagel, co-inventor of Ecological Footprint and founder of Global Footprint Network.

UNEP is among the group of official bodies that fear these impacts could create feedback loops, whereby a warming climate puts more pressure on terrestrial ecosystems, leading to more emissions, and in turn more warming. "Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures," the agency states. "At the same time, keeping global warming to well below 2C can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food."

SDG 15 to the rescue?

SDG15 aims to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss, including by tackling poaching and trafficking of protected species. The key targets within the Goal include commitments to:

  • By 2020, ensure that terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems, such as forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, are conserved, restored and used sustainably in line with international obligations, in particular bringing a halt to deforestation, restoring degraded forests, planting substantial amounts of trees and managing forests sustainably.
  • Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats and the loss of biodiversity and by 2020 "protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species while promoting shared use of the benefits of genetic resources".
  • By 2020, integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts.
  • By 2030, combat desertification and conserve mountain ecosystems "including their biodiversity, in order to enhance their capacity to provide benefits that are essential for sustainable development".
  • Take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.
  • By 2020, tackle the introduction and spread of invasive alien species on land and water ecosystems and control or eradicate the priority species.

Progress on SDG 15 is decidedly mixed. A lot more ecosystems are now in protected areas and there has been considerable progress on slowing deforestation, but that has been threatened by developments such as a less forest-friendly government in Brazil, as well as a spate of devastating wildfires around the world, from California to Australia.

"There are some encouraging global trends in protecting terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity," the SDG Knowledge Platform states. "Forest loss is slowing down, more key biodiversity areas are protected and more financial assistance is flowing towards biodiversity protection."

But it admits that "the 2020 targets of Sustainable Development Goal 15 are unlikely to be met, land degradation continues, biodiversity loss is occurring at an alarming rate, and invasive species and the illicit poaching and trafficking of wildlife continue to thwart efforts to protect and restore vital ecosystems and species". In short, the expansion of some nature reserves and encouraging debates about 'rewilding', in no way compensate for complex market failures and the continued expansion of unsustainable and under-regulated extractive and agricultural industries.

Consequently, the level of species extinction is truly alarming. For example, a recent study found that at least one million species face extinction in coming decades, at least half of them insects. "It is not only their vast numbers, but the dependency of ecosystems and humanity on them, that makes the conservation of insect diversity critical for future generations," the study in the journal Biological Conservation states, adding that it is overwhelmingly mankind that has caused these extinctions, through habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

This is not just a biodiversity issue - insects provide the economy with a variety of services, including pollination, nutrient cycling, and pest control. In the US alone, these services are estimated to be worth $57bn a year, while the UN's biodiversity panel says that insect pollination is vital to crops with a value of $235bn-$577bn a year. Although again, critics of such economic modelling would say the true value of insect pollination is incalculable, given that without any insects entire food systems could collapse. 

Unless we reverse nature loss, trillions of dollars will be wiped off the world's economies - WWF's Global Futures report

The proportion of key biodiversity areas on land, including in the mountains and in fresh water that are covered by protected areas, has increased significantly since 2000, yet between the turn of the century and 2015, more than a fifth of the Earth's total land area was degraded, largely as a result of "human-induced processes, such as desertification, cropland expansion and urbanisation". At the same time, land cover became significantly less productive. The number of species threatened with extinction has also increased drastically over the past 30 years.

WWF calculates in a new Global Futures report that environmental degradation, if it continues at current rates, will cost the global economy a minimum of £368bn a year, leading to total losses of £8tr by 2050. The losses are expected to be caused by a range of factors, such as higher food prices, droughts, commodity shortages, extreme flooding, and coastal erosion if action is not taken to confront the multiple environmental crises facing humanity.

"Unless we reverse nature loss, trillions of dollars will be wiped off the world's economies, industries will be disrupted and the lives of millions will be affected," the group says.

However, it says that if land use is carefully managed to avoid further loss of areas important for biodiversity and ecosystem services, global GDP could rise by $490bn per year above the business as usual calculation. The opportunity is still there to rebuild the foundations, to reclaim the land.

Steve Polasky, co-founder of the Natural Capital Project, which was involved in the study, spells out what is at stake. "The world's economies, businesses and our own well-being all depend on nature," he says. "But from climate change, extreme weather and flooding to water shortages, soil erosion and species extinctions, evidence shows that our planet is changing faster than at any other time in history. The way we feed, fuel and finance ourselves is destroying the life-support systems on which we depend, risking global economic devastation."

Protection and restoration

The business community is right at the heart of whether or not the targets contained in SDG15 can be achieved and disaster averted. Business both impacts and depends upon nature. All economic activity is ultimately dependent on value derived from nature, and the survival of nature depends on the decisions and actions of businesses, argues Dr James MacPherson, head of the natural capital and ecosystem services practice at sustainability consultancy Anthesis.

"If both nature and the economy are to thrive in the long term, businesses must integrate nature into their decision making," he says. "To do this, we must provide relevant, reliable and useful data on natural capital impacts and dependencies."

That means that getting to grips with SDG 15 should be a key priority for businesses, yet this is not always the case, according to Gudrun Cartwright, environment director at Business in the Community.

"It very much depends what kind of business you talk to as to how important it is," she says. "It was the least considered issue in our Business Tracker survey in 2019, but for certain sectors, such as food and drink, construction and utilities, it is very much on the agenda."

It is likely to rise up the agenda for many sectors this year because a critical meeting of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in China is hoping to deliver a biodiversity equivalent of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The CBD may be less high profile than its climate change cousin, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but the hope is that just ahead of the crucial COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow the biodiversity COP will broker a sweeping new agreement under the hugely ambitious heading "Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth".

This higher profile for biodiversity policy coincides with a raft of sustainability initiatives from the business community, ranging from the World Economic Forum's focus on stakeholder capitalism to growing calls from investors for businesses to report on deforestation and biodiversity-related risks. "There is much more understanding now of how companies and their supply chains are dependent on the health of nature to be successful," Cartwright argues. "There will be an increasing focus from financial institutions because of the need to think about climate change. When they get more interested, there will be a cascade effect down to the people they lend to and the businesses they invest in."

Insurers are already starting to think about nature and its health in relation to issues such as flood risk and mitigation, while manufacturers are thinking about the availability of resources, where they come from and how secure is that supply, she adds. The expectation is that these concerns will quickly spread beyond the usual suspects in the food, fashion, and infrastructure industries.

Progress on nature is lagging action on climate because it's a much more complex issue - Dr James MacPherson, natural capital consultant at Anthesis

Nonetheless, the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems is often overshadowed in many businesses and government corridors by more direct efforts to tackle climate change. "One of the big challenges for this SDG is framing biodiversity issues and how organisations interact with nature to highlight companies' impacts and dependencies and their response to that," Macpherson points out. "Progress on nature is lagging action on climate because it's a much more complex issue. There's no single unit of measurement like a ton of CO2. It's a lot easier for people to understand carbon impacts than potential biodiversity risks around materials in products they buy. It's a much more challenging concept because it is a much more multi-faceted problem. It's much harder to know what to do because there are so many different components involved."

Forest cleared to make way for palm oil plantations in Indonesia | Credit: Mighty Earth

This complexity is further amplified by competing theories around how best to protect nature and reverse damage to terrestrial ecosystems.

"To protect nature, we need to engage stakeholders and catalyse change on the ground through market mechanisms," Macpherson argues. Known as a 'Capitals' approach, this market-based model encourages businesses, investors and policymakers to consider not only the implications of a decision for financial capital, but also for natural capital, human capital, and social capital. By putting a value on natural capital stakeholders can then identify how and where nature provides value beyond that which might be gained from its exploitation.

The concept makes complete sense as an economic theory and it is gaining traction with a growing number of businesses and governments. Many corporate now undertake natural capital accounting exercises to help them manage watersheds or forest resources. Meanwhile, the UK government is piloting a number of new initiatives, including biodiversity offsets that are designed to ensure developers better consider the environmental costs of new projects.

But critics of the approach have long argued that it is impossible to accurately calculate the economic value of nature and in doing so policymakers can inadvertently help justify nature-destroying developments. The journalist and campaigner George Monbiot has been a vociferous critic of the very idea of natural capital and ecosystem services, saying that "efforts to price the natural world are complete and utter gobbledygook" and arguing that the natural capital agenda represents a "neoliberal road to ruin".

Regardless of whether or not businesses regard natural capital thinking as a useful tool in protecting nature or a dangerous distraction, there are plenty of other reasons why engagement with biodiversity and habitat protection, as well as wider reforms to land management, is growing fast.

Natural capital thinking is one of a number of policy ideas jostling for position as governments consider how best to tackle accelerating levels of environmental damage. Massively expanded nature reserves; the 'rewilding' of vast tracts of land enabled by a shift away from livestock-based diets; farming subsidy changes and wider land ownership reforms; lab based meats and vertical farms; and more stringent forest protection regulations backed by advanced satellite monitoring technologies are all firmly in the mix. 

Savvy businesses are aware of this evolving policy debate, as well as the intensifying pressure from consumers and investors for them to publicly demonstrate that they are actively minimising their environmental impacts. As in so many other aspects of the economy, transparency is increasing and more and more companies are being held to account.

For example, the NGO Global Canopy has recently published a report calling out "world-famous brands selling everything from high fashion to supermarket favourites, who are ignoring deforestation caused by demand for the commodities they use". In its latest Forest 500 report, it pulls no punches, declaring that "vast areas of tropical forest are being cleared each year to make way for six globally-traded commodities - palm oil, soy, beef, leather, timber and pulp and paper - used in millions of everyday products. Yet, of the leading companies trading these commodities and the financial institutions that finance them, nearly half (242 of 500) have made no public commitment to end deforestation".

It then highlights the role of some of the world's biggest corporate names, including Amazon; Capri Holdings - owner of Versace, Jimmy Choo and Michael Kors; Us food giant Tyson Foods; and investors such as Blackrock, Vanguard, and State Street.

"Many of the world's best-known brands are complicit in the destruction of tropical forests, which undermines our ability to combat global climate change," says report author Sarah Rogerson. "They are turning a blind eye to deforestation caused by demand for the commodities they use and failing to publicly recognise their responsibility to act."

With wildfires in the Amazon, Australia, and California raising awareness among consumers, and 244 financial institutions having signed a statement calling on companies to take action to avoid deforestation, it is increasingly difficult for businesses to hide. Yet even when companies have made deforestation commitments, too many stand accused of abandoning, watering down or refusing to report on their progress against those pledges. Global Canopy reports that in 2018, 157 companies had pledged to end deforestation. But of those, 81 companies have since removed or weakened commitments or reduced reporting, including the owners of brands such as Burger King, Nike, KFC, Walmart, and Carrefour.

"Forest risk commodities are in almost everything we eat, from beef in ready meals and burgers, palm oil in biscuits, to soy as a hidden ingredient in poultry and dairy products," says Rogerson. ​"Many people would be shocked to know how many familiar brands in their shopping basket may be contributing to the destruction of the Amazon and other tropical forests."

Such practices are particularly high risk in today's economic and social landscape, Cartwright argues. "Public interest about the environment is very driven by how horrified people are by the damage caused by things like plastic pollution," she says. "There is a public expectation now that companies are doing the right thing. If consumers find out that companies are harming nature or they have supply chains that are causing environmental damage, they are really surprised and they punish them. If you're not aware of what's going on in your supply chain, you put yourself at risk."

However, despite the many daunting challenges there are sources of optimism. Emerging technologies, such as satellite mapping and blockchain, are giving firms ever greater insight into their land-based supply chains. Technological progress has coupled with increased management focus and a growing understanding of the value of ecosystem services so as to allow executives to actively minimise supply chain risks. The green procurement codes of a few years ago have evolved into wide-ranging suppler engagement programmes that see consumer brands work closely with suppliers to minimise environmental impacts at every turn.  

For example, Michelle Norman, head of sustainability at Lucozade Ribena Suntory, says that the company "is driven by its desire to work in harmony with people and nature" and as such it "wants our supply chain to be as sustainable as possible and the traceability of our ingredients forms a huge part of that".

"Blackcurrants rely on life on land to thrive," she continues. "That's why we support our growers all year-round to implement Biodiversity Action Plans on their farms and have done since 2004. This includes water conservation, habitat restoration and other initiatives designed to promote biodiversity, without which we couldn't sustain our wonderful blackcurrant crop." Consequently, the company says it can now trace the 10,000 tonnes of British blackcurrant that go into Ribena, right through from bush to bottle.

Beyond Meat is one of a growing number of firms selling vegan-friendly proteins | Credit: Beyond Meat

Meanwhile, product innovation in everything from packaging to proteins is helping to curb land use impacts.

For example, over the last two years, the market for lab-grown or plant-based meat substitutes has grown from being essentially science fiction to a market where, in 2019, "one of the world's biggest alternative protein brands, Beyond Meat, the manufacturer of the plant-based Beyond Burger, went public at a valuation of almost $1.5bn", according to CB Insights. Another company, Impossible Foods, whose plant-based meat features in Burger King's meat-free Impossible Whopper, was valued at $2bn at its last funding round.

"In addition to offering new products, these alternative protein start-ups have the potential to upend the meat production process," CB Insights explains. "Going forward, the meat value chain could be simplified dramatically, as 'clean meat' labs could take the place of farms, feed lots, and slaughterhouses." This disruption could have profound effects on the $1.8tr meat market on a similar scale to the upheavals being experienced by carmakers, utilities, and oil and gas groups as a result of competitive clean technologies and escalating concerns over climate change.

Another trend that offers businesses the opportunity to reduce their harmful impacts on land and biodiversity is the growth of the circular economy, which has the potential to massively reduce resource use, waste, and pollution. Indonesian start-up Evoware provides just one example of the resource-saving innovation that is accelerating around the world, thanks to its edible alternative to plastic cups and food sachets. Made from seaweed, the new material promises to not only reduce plastic pollution but also sequester CO2. Similarly, Finnish oil refiner Neste is one of a number of companies moving from making products from crude oil to alternatives made from materials such as waste oils and fats to produce biodiesel, bioaviation fuel, and bioplastics. The race is on to develop low carbon fuels that avoid the land use impacts that inevitably come with first generation biofuels.



It is these many innovations, coupled with the kind of policy interventions that have proven to increase forest cover in many industrialised nations and slow deforestation rates in emerging economies, which provide hope that slow progress on SDG15 to date could yet reach an inflection point. 

Cartwright argues it is proactive businesses that are likely to trigger a new wave of action to deliver on SDG15. "This is an area where we really need business to lead, because otherwise we get stuck in a cycle of government saying that companies are not doing enough and businesses saying they can't do any more because it is not compulsory for their competitors to act as well," she says. "It's a real opportunity for companies to step up and tackle these issues."

The debate over 'ecosystem services' and 'natural capital' accounting may continue to rage on, but alongside escalating corporate and investor fears over the climate crisis a fundamental truth is dawning in boardrooms around the world. "There is a growing realisation that we can't tackle climate change without restoring nature," reflects Cartwright. "It's easy to take nature for granted until it's gone - but once it's gone, we can't get it back. It's really interesting that the connection doesn't get made that we are nature; we are life on land. We're not separate from it. If we damage life on land, we are damaging ourselves."

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