Healthy EcoSystems, Healthy Earth, Healthy People
2015-09-24 Berglind Orradottir & Hafsid Hanna Aegisdottir

Photo: CIFOR, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0

This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

Goal #15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

We live in challenging times. Our Mother Earth and her human population face major challenges that must be confronted in order to achieve future prosperity, peace, and well-being for all. To this end, world leaders have united on a set of Global Goals for sustainable development — goals that raise great expectations and set the stage for the next 15 years. There are tough questions that must be addressed: Can we succeed? How should we go forward? How do we minimise failures and maximise successes?

The new Global Goals aim to shift the world onto a more sustainable and resilient path. Their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), focused mainly on the human aspects of development. The Global Goals go beyond this by integrating the role of ecosystems in sustaining human well-being. This is a major step forward, in that the new goals seek to ensure a better balance between economic growth and environmental protection.

Goal #15 is at the heart of the post-2015 agenda. It addresses land degradation and desertification, which are some of the most important global environmental challenges (as stated in the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification). Land degradation currently affects more than 1 billion people worldwide, threatening food and water security and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes.


Healthy terrestrial ecosystems are vital for human welfare and survival, as they provide us with essential products and benefits. Over 90% of our food comes from terrestrial ecosystems, which also provide energy, building materials, clothes, medicines, fresh and clean water, and clean air.

Healthy terrestrial ecosystems also play a key role in mitigating climate change, as soils are a major carbon sink. They are more resilient to environmental disturbances than degraded land, and thus are significant in regulating natural hazards like floods, landslides, and drought — a service that becomes even more important in times of global climate change.

The soils of terrestrial ecosystems sustain crop and livestock production. Sustaining soil fertility, therefore, is vital for ensuring high land productivity in these times of growing human population. In short, the services and benefits of healthy terrestrial ecosystems are essential for a sustainable future.

Goal #15 has nine targets that aim to stimulate actions throughout the globe for the next 15 years. How realistic is it that we will reach those targets?


Implementation of sustainable use and management of terrestrial ecosystems and achieving a land degradation-neutral world are ambitious targets that need careful planning at both national and international levels. These need to take into consideration sustainable land management approaches addressing “the biophysical, cultural, economic, financial, legal, political, social, and technical conditions of each targeted area”, as stated in a new report published by the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative.

When striving for a land degradation-neutral world, we need to avoid quick fixes that only lead to greening of the land without creating sustainable, resilient, and well-functioning ecosystems. Diligence must be applied to prevent targets being used to grab land under the false pretenses of reversing land degradation or achieving sustainable management.

It is important that restoration of degraded land, as well as afforestation and reforestation activities, be based on sound ecological knowledge, the potential of the land, and the needs of the people that live directly from the land. The importance of including all local stakeholders as well as scientists and policymakers in the planning and implementation of all restoration activities cannot be overstated.

Achieving the first four targets of Goal #15 will help to mitigate climate change (Goal #13), maintain biodiversity (Goal #14), alleviate poverty (Goal # 1), increase food security and end hunger (Goal #2) and foster economic prosperity (Goal #8), as well as increasing the resilience of ecosystems and societies to future challenges.

It thus is vital that substantial and focused effort is put into achieving Goal #15. For that, we need strong political commitment and national-level strategies on sustainable land management. Such strategies require sound scientific knowledge, new research approaches, and capacity building that can support knowledge-based implementation of necessary changes and local actions.

Participatory processes and public dialogue with scientists and policymakers in creating land governance strategies are essential to achieve this goal. And financial resources will need to be channeled towards those efforts. Given the broad effect that it has on the potential for reaching many of the other Global Goals, it is clear that we must seriously target Goal #15.