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  • Kaylin Lemajeur

UN Sustainable Development Goals: Life on Land

Updated: Jul 1, 2022


The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were developed in 2015 to advocate for global sustainability by 2030. The SDGs include 17 goals that focus on various sustainability issues on social, economic, and environmental platforms. SDG 15 focuses on “Life on Land.” The SDG 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” (UNSD 2021). This paper will focus on the discussion of Water, highlight Water’s essential role in achieving the SDG goal and analyze the progress and work yet to be done to achieve SDG 15.

SDG 15 and the Connection to Water

Water is essential in sustaining the health and function of ecosystems and the species within these ecosystems. One of the metrics SDG 15 monitors to assess the Life on Land goal’s progress is the state of key biodiversity areas. The biodiversity includes plants and animal species in different ecosystems. Notably, freshwater is regarded as one of these critical areas. Protecting fresh water is essential to safeguarding biodiversity, as freshwater is home to various species. Protection of Waterbodies starts with sustainable use, conservation, and restoration of terrestrial ecosystems (Krauss, 2022). These include proper use of land and protection of forests that will help preserve Water quality as well as prevent adverse Water challenges such as floods and droughts that will affect the biodiversity in freshwater bodies.

In addition to freshwater species, marine ecosystems and species are a focus area for this SDG. The threat of species extinction is the main area of this goal, and reef-building corals are one of the species evaluated in these analyses (UNSD 2021). Amphibians are also in these analyses, another featured category of species that depend on Water in their life cycles and the survival of their populations. Destruction of the marine ecosystem, through activities that reduce Water quality and introduce toxins to these ecosystems, contributes to the extinction of some marine species.

The sustainable management of forests is key to the Life on Land goal. Forests play a crucial role in the availability of Water. Forests and Water share a reciprocal relationship where forests regulate the water cycle (UNSD 2021), and Water sustains trees and other species. Covering a vast 4.1 billion hectares of land, forests are repositories for most of the world’s biodiversity (UNSD 2021). Water is essential in maintaining the health of soils, vegetation, and animals in forests.

Progress on SDG 15

The evaluation of the progress of the SDG goals is based on the targets and indicators developed by the United Nations. For Goal 15, the UN has set targets that include restoring freshwater ecosystems, sustainability in forest management, and planning. These targets are measured by various indicators that show the progress so far. For instance, progress is based on indicators such as increased forest cover and the protection of biodiversity sites in the conservation and restoration of freshwater ecosystems.

The United Nations has identified that progress towards this goal has been made through management efforts. The UN has also indicated that implementing policies to protect forests and biodiversity is a major step towards the achievement of Goal 15. Sustainable forest management that works to maintain and enhance the economic, social, and environmental value of all types of forests has made notable progress globally in the past two decades (UNSD, 2021). The UN shows that major nations are adopting certifications for forests, which confirms that forests are being managed to meet a series of standards that increase or maintain their sustainability at global levels (UNSD, 2021). The proportion of forests in protected areas or under long-term management plans and the above-ground biomass per hectare has also increased or remained stable globally (UNSD, 2021).

Also, almost all countries have adopted legislation to prevent or control invasive species (UN, 2021). Invasive species can outcompete the native species in a given area and be disruptive to the balance and function of ecosystems. Besides, the invasive species are economically disruptive as they cost the global economy billions of dollars annually. Hence the countries must be making effective policies beneficial to societies grappling with these costs and the ecosystems.

The SDG 2021 Goal 15 report showed progress in utilizing economic policy to protect biodiversity. In 2021, 232 biodiversity-relevant taxes were in force across 62 countries and territories (UNSD, 2021). Implementing economic measures on a global scale to promote biodiversity can be a practical step to ensuring biodiversity protection (Weber, 2017). Also, more countries are showing accountability towards Goal 15 efforts and targets by adopting environmental-economic accounting systems that publish the accounts regularly.

Work to Still Be Done

There is still more work to be done for the goals of Life on Land to be achieved by the UN’s goal date of 2030. Notably, the areas that need more work include sectors that deal with species extinction and general policy and planning spaces. The 2021 SDG report for Goal 15 indicates that the world fell short of 2020 targets to halt biodiversity loss (UNSD, 2021). Over the past three decades, the global risk of species extinction has increased. The Red List Index decreased from 0.81 in 1993 to 0.73 in 2021, showing that species extinction risk has increased by roughly 10 percent (UNSD, 2021). More than 37,400 species are currently threatened with extinction (UN, 2021). The protection of Water and Waterbodies is essential in protecting these species. Water protection can ensure species in marine and freshwater ecosystems can thrive in their habitats. The Water scarcity on land threatens plants, mammals, and bird species, because Water is essential for their survival and perpetuation. Ensuring Water is protected is one way to facilitate the protection of threatened species and promote biodiversity.

Increased consideration of freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems in all plans and policies can ensure societies are moving towards achieving global protection and restoration of ecosystems. Biodiversity-related taxes and procedures to address invasive species have been adopted (IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub, 2018). However, there is still a need for more progress to ensure all nations embrace the policies and consider all species. Notably, the lack of consideration in the protection and sustainable use of land and ecosystems can further land degradation and desertification (Krauss, 2022). This lack of consideration will negatively impact communities, livelihoods, the health of the planet, and Water systems. It is crucial for policies and plans to consider the health of the planet by protecting life on land as well as Water, which is the driver of life.

Additionally, nations should consider using existing natural and public resources effectively. Governments should advocate for incentives that encourage nature-based solutions, because it is detrimental to restrict access to natural resources like forests or Waterbodies (Vasseur et al., 2017). Hence, apart from taxes and policies, innovative investments aimed at Water and environmental conservation are crucial. This includes efforts such as biodiversity offsets and green bonds that encourage conservation and restoration of Water systems.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim toward global sustainability of social, economic, and environmental development. Water is an essential component in these three sectors as it supports life and biodiversity. Similarly, human practices affect Water, threatening the environment and major ecosystems. Hence, Goal 15 of the SDGs, Life on Land, includes necessary connections between the protection, restoration, and sustainable use of land and ecosystems and Water. Water& is committed to protecting Water and researching the UN Sustainable Development Goals to analyze how each one relates to Water. Past Water& SDG analyses include SDG 5 on Gender Equality, SDG 4 on Quality Education, and more. Water is vital for society, the achievement of other SDG goals, and a more sustainable future.


IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub. (2018, July). HLPF finds mixed progress on SDG 15. SDG Knowledge Hub.

Krauss, J. E. (2022). Unpacking SDG 15, its targets and indicators: Tracing ideas of conservation. Globalizations, 0(0), 1–16.

United Nations (UN) (2021). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021 Gaol 15 Infographic.

United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) (2021). 2021 SDG Progress Report Goal 15.

Weber, H. (2017). Politics of ‘Leaving No One Behind’: Contesting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda. Globalizations, 14(3), 399–414.

Vasseur, L., Horning, D., Thornbush, M., Cohen-Shacham, E., Andrade, A., Barrow, E., Edwards, S. R., Wit, P., & Jones, M. (2017). Complex problems and unchallenged solutions: Bringing ecosystem governance to the forefront of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ambio, 46(7), 731–742.


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