SDG 15: “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.”
The ecological existential crisis we face today is the consequence of humanity’s ecological footprint far exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity to provide and regenerate resources. The overarching aim of SDG 15 is to address this unsustainable use of natural resources and to protect the integrity of our living systems (planet’s biosphere). As recently alluded to by Jan-Gustav Strandenaes (2023) of the Stakeholder Forum in Countdown to the UN SDG Summit 2023 Webinar Series, SDG 15’s short title Life on land belies the all-pervasive nature of SDG 15 and its relatedness to all other SDGs. The synergies between SDG 15 and all other SDGs are better understood through its 12 substantive and detailed goals and 14 indicators, with Target 9 directly calling for integrating ecosystem and biodiversity values into development processes, poverty reduction strategies, national and local planning, and accounts.
To give some examples - reducing the rate of biodiversity loss and maintaining well-functioning ecosystems (and related provisioning of essential ecosystem-services, without which life on Earth would not be possible for humans), contribute to alleviating poverty (SDG 1) and reducing food insecurity (SDG 2). Preventing land degradation and combatting desertification improve water availability (SDG 6). It is now quite well-understood that ecosystem-destruction intensifies climate change and reduces adaptability to climate vulnerabilities (SDG 13). Ecosystem-generated forms of renewable energy (biomass, hydropower) contribute to affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), critical marine and terrestrial ecosystems worldwide provide significant employment (SDG 8) and biodiversity directly supports a high percentage of subsistence livelihoods across the globe.
As biodiversity has been rightly dubbed as the ‘linchpin between all SDGs,’ fulfilling SDG 15 ought to be a global priority, necessitating the revitalization of several targets at the 2023 UN SDGs Summit and beyond.
Recent international and regional efforts that reanimate SDG 15
SDG Goal 15 has been unique in that it has always been more than just a political commitment – its targets and indicators are rooted in previous international and soft law treaties. The recent historic 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and the European Union’s 2023 trailblazer Regulation on Deforestation-Free Products and Nature Restoration Law have breathed new life into achieving SDG 15.
Halting deforestation (Goal 15:2) and the EU Regulation on Deforestation-free products
Goal 15.2’s call to action to halt deforestation and restore degraded forests has been indirectly ceded hard-law status by the EU’s recently adopted Deforestation-free Products Regulation (which is to say that hard-law obligations would apply to all operators and traders that fall within the regulation’s purview). This pioneering legislation prohibits key deforestation-linked agricultural and forest products (dubbed ‘forest-risk’ commodities) from being placed on the EU market or exported, simultaneously reinforcing mandatory corporate due diligence for forest-risk commodity supply chains.
The EUDR’s contribution to SDG Goal 15.2 should be significant given the EU’s sizeable global deforestation-related footprint. The EU is the world’s second-largest importer of tropical deforestation and its associated carbon emissions, as per the WWF EU, and the Regulation is a clear attempt for the EU to atone for its estimated 16 percent share of international-trade linked deforestation. The regulation’s mechanisms for supply chain traceability are one-of-a-kind - requiring the collection of geographic coordinates of plots of land where the commodities were produced, to ensure forests have not been converted to agricultural use after the decreed cut-off date of 31 December 2020. This is bound to create ripple effects in supply chains, impacting upstream smallholders and farmers in tropical developing countries, who’d have to transition to sustainable practices in order to participate in deforestation-free supply chains.
2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF)
The crown jewel in the GBF, the ‘30x30’ target, ambitiously increased the world’s chances of fulfilling SDG Indicator 15.1.2. It calls for protecting “at least 30%” of land, inland waters, and coastal and marine areas by 2030,” through the designation of a network of protected areas and use of other effective area-based conservation measures. SDG Indicator 15.1.2, as a way to measure progress under the umbrella target 15.1, calls for assessing the “proportion of important sites for terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity that are covered by protected areas, by ecosystem type.” Once again, the GBF stands out here, since its successful in addressing what has been a key criticism of SDG 15 – that SDG 15 is not people-centric and inclusive enough – “failing to include and recognize the rights, lives and lands of those living with conservation.”
The GBF remedies this by calling for full and effective participation in the decision-making of the indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), and respecting, documenting and preserving their ‘biodiversity, innovations, worldviews, values and practices’ through their ‘free, prior and informed consent’ – making, at least in theory, – a ‘rights-based’ approach to conservation central to the implementation of global conservation targets. In a very lucid article, Lehmann (2023) of the Institute for Environmental Studies aptly calls for the upcoming 2023 SDG Summit to imbibe this ‘rights-based approach’ in addition to taking forward other vital elements of 2022, such as the GBF’s financial commitments made towards a ‘Global Biodiversity Fund.’
EU’s Nature Restoration Law
The EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law, with its legally-binding obligations, targets to restore degraded ecosystems (habitats and species), and also boosts global efforts to fulfil SDG 15. According to the treaty text, these measures should cover at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050 - actions that will help deliver the ambitious targets of the GBF.
Transforming the way we use our land and grow our food
Amongst all the drivers of biodiversity loss, changes in land and sea use have the largest relative global impact, as per the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The best way to halt and reverse biodiversity is to avoid converting more land for agricultural use (agriculture currently accounts for 80 % of global land-use change), reduce overfishing and transform our modern food systems (the what and the how of the food we produce); along with making more responsible the underlying patterns of unsustainable consumption/production – especially the patterns of our modern diets. Impacts of unsustainable farming practices range from ecosystem-degradation from excess nitrogen deposition; impacts on habitat loss and non-target species population from excess pesticide use; and impacts on wild flora and fauna from practices such as conventional tilling and drainage.
The way we produce our food also indirectly drives biodiversity-destruction through climate change (our modern food systems are responsible for 30 percent of anthropogenic emissions). The IPCC has also recognised the potential for synergies between climate change mitigation policies/measures in the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses (AFOLOU) sector and addressing biodiversity loss – so the possibilities to deliver SDG 15 are plenty.
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