Sustainable Development Goal 15

You probably know that human activities are threatening our terrestrial ecosystems. When you watch the news, you see forests burning, food shortages, and droughts. This can be overwhelming. Luckily, the United Nations has created a framework in which to solve these problems. The solution is the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 15, Life on Land.

Sustainable Development Goal 15 Sustainable Development Goal 15

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Table of contents

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 Overview

    The United Nations General Assembly devised 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide the implementation of national policy that benefits humanity and the planet. The goal of sustainability in general is to ensure future generations have access to a high-quality standard of life. The SDGs were designed for all 193 UN member states to meet by 2030. Each Sustainable Development Goal encompasses numerous ambitious objectives to solve world issues.

    As the name implies, Sustainable Development Goal 15 concerns the protection of Life on Land.

    It is focused on terrestrial ecosystems, meaning ecosystems on land. Aquatic ecosystems are focused on in a different SDG: SDG 14, Life Below Water.

    SDQ 15 addresses a broad range of concerns, including terrestrial ecosystems' use, management, and protection. It seeks to prevent harmful habits that have been impacting terrestrial ecosystems.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 SDG 15 logo StudySmarterFig. 1 - the official UN logo for SDG 15

    SDG 15 is crucial because it concerns humans' ability to survive in the future. Humans must live in healthy environments because to survive we need adequate resources for food, shelter, and water. Thus, the current generation and its leaders must sustainably work towards preserving and managing our terrestrial ecosystems.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 Life on Land

    The United Nations clearly defines each SDG so that member states know exactly what targets to focus on to accurately and adequately implement relevant legislation. The UN defines the goal of SDG 15, Life on Land, as:

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

    - United Nations1

    Thus, SDG 15 is broad and encompasses many different targets that each have their own indicators. As humanity has rapidly expanded our population, use of resources, and economies in the past few decades, Earth's ecosystems have suffered the consequence of our unconstrained growth. They are increasingly polluted, destroyed, and exploited. Humanity cannot continue this damage if we want to have a sustainable future. SDG 15 seeks to prevent the continued destruction of terrestrial ecosystems.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 Polluted Land StudySmarterFig. 2 - Humans have polluted our terrestrial ecosystems, as seen at this landfill in Finland. SDG 15 seeks to solve this problem

    Biodiversity and Ecosystems

    Biodiversity is an important environmental characteristic of life on Earth. SDG 15 seeks to halt biodiversity loss. What exactly does that mean?

    Biodiversity: the variety or range of unique species of animals, plants, and fungi that exist in an ecosystem.

    Biodiversity is not only important for the functioning of complex ecosystems, but also is important for human survival as well. Medicines and treatments are not just synthesized in pharmaceutical labs but also can be discovered in the environment. For instance, biodiversity provides natural medicines. Thus, hidden deep inside the rain forest could be the genetic material pharmacists need for a new medicine.

    Another benefit of biodiversity is more food options. Modern agriculture has adopted monoculture, in which farmers embrace the cultivation of a uniform crop. If a disease were to target this crop, that would be disastrous. Biodiversity provides a defense against this disaster by having multiple genetic options for each crop.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 Biodiversity StudySmarterFig. 3 - Tropical rainforests are highly biodiverse and contain millions of species

    Biodiversity is being challenged around the world as species lose their habitats and go extinct. Tens of thousands of species are known to be at risk of extinction. These are known as endangered species. Famous examples of endangered species include gorillas, rhinos, elephants, tuna, sea turtles, giant pandas, and many more.

    Extinction is not only harmful to human life, but also it harms the environment. Ecosystems depend upon complex food webs and symbiotic relations to survive. The loss of biodiversity threatens that survival.


    A biome with a high concentration of biodiversity is the tropical rainforest. Rainforests are home to many species because the thick vegetation provides resource-rich habitats. Due to the canopies and the great height of the rainforest's trees, there are multiple tiers of niches. For instance, there is a whole ecosystem on the rainforest floor and another in the canopy.

    The health of forests is also directly correlated to the health of all of Earth's organisms. Forests are known as the lungs of the Earth because they provide the oxygen that humans and other life forms depend on for survival.

    Through the expansion of our settlements and economies, humans are directly destroying rainforests. This negatively impacts biodiversity and our own health. One of the major processes destroying forests is deforestation.

    Deforestation: the destruction of forests for non-forest uses, such as to create farms or settlements.

    A major location for deforestation is the Amazon rainforest of Brazil. Brazilian politicians and businessmen have been selling the rainforest of the Amazon to developers, logging companies, and cattle ranchers. Due to the resources available in the rainforest, it is seen as a treasure chest of economic opportunities, instead of being worthy of protection.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 Deforestation StudySmarterFig. 4 - Humanity is destroying our forests through deforestation. This causes the extinction of species by shrinking habitats and destroying food sources

    Brazil and its Amazon rainforest is not the only location where deforestation is occurring. Deforestation is happening all around the world. The United Nations sees this as a problem that must be halted because forests are home to millions of species.

    Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought

    SDG 15 includes provisions to protect the land from desertification, land degradation, and drought as well. These three environmental processes, which can be human-induced, affect the arability and productivity of the land. They diminish the quantity and quality of food produced, which poses a threat to the sustenance of humans.

    Land Degradation: the diminished quality and fertility of land due to environmental and human-induced processes.

    One common form of land degradation is erosion. There are many different forms of erosion. One common form is coastal erosion, a natural process caused by the constant flow of water and waves long the coasts. However, coastal erosion is happening more frequently and unpredictably as the sea level rises. This directly diminishes the quality and quantity of coastal lands.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 Land Degradation StudySmaterFig. 5 - This land is degraded as a result of coastal erosion. The seas are rising and causing coastal areas to be unusable

    Land degradation is harmful because it leads to the production of arable land and the cultivation of less food. This can cause malnutrition and threaten famine.


    A major form of land degradation is desertification.

    Desertification: a form of land degradation in which arable land is converted to non-arable land as a result of drought, deforestation, or overuse.

    We think of deserts as barren landscapes with little vegetation. As dry landscapes spread as a result of desertification, this means the productivity and arability of our land is decreasing. An area that was once an arable farm can turn in to a wasteland.

    Climate change will not only cause rising seas that change our coastlines, but it will also cause inland areas to be less arable as they become drier and barren.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 Desertification StudySmarterFig. 6 - Desertification causes the land to no longer be arable

    Desertification can be prevented through better land and water management. It will help ensure that humanity has proper farmland to be able to grow the food needed to survive.


    Another form of land degradation is salinization.

    Salinization: the increase of salt content in the soil.

    Salinization diminishes the quality and arability of soil because too much salt is harmful to biological life. Plants need freshwater, not saltwater, to survive.

    Similar to desertification, salinization is often caused by improper irrigation. It can be prevented through better water management.


    Drought is the lack of adequate precipitation in an area for a prolonged period of time, such as a season. This leads to drier land and less agricultural productivity. It also leads to a water shortage. As climate change occurs, there will be a change in precipitation patterns. Southern California is already experiencing these changes. This region experiences long periods of no precipitation followed by a large storm that causes flooding.

    Humans need water to drink, bathe, clean, and for industrial activities. Water is even needed to produce electricity. Most importantly, water is needed to produce food. We need water to survive.

    Another consequence of the drought in Southern California is that this region's Mediterranean climate is known for its agricultural productivity. Drought threatens this arability, which would prove disastrous for food security.

    Sustainable Development Goal Framework

    The UN has an official framework of targets and indicators for member states to track their progress toward the goals of SDG 15. The targets are the objectives of SDG 15 and cover the full scope of the framework. There are 12 targets5 in total. Each target has at least one indicator6 which is a statistical finding that can be used and compared to track progress on the targets within a country as well as between countries.

    You do not need to memorize the following, but it is important to read through and understand the scope and focuses of SDG 15. This will help to better understand the goal.

    Target NumberTarget TitleTarget Indicators
    15.1"Conserve and Restore Terrestrial and Freshwater Ecosystems"- Forest area in comparison to total land area- Proportion of protected areas
    15.2"End Deforestation and Restore Degraded Forests"- Proportion of degraded land- Yearly change in forested area
    15.3"End Desertification and Restore Degraded Land"- Proportion of degraded land
    15.4"Ensure Conservation of Mountain Ecosystems"- Protected mountain areas - Mountain Green Cover Index
    15.5 "Protect Biodiversity and Natural Habitats"- Red List Index
    15.6"Promote Access to Genetic Resources and Fair Sharing of the Benefits"- Number of Countries that are complying
    15.7"Eliminate Poaching and Trafficking of Protected Species"- Proportion of traded wildlife that is poached
    15.8 "Prevent Invasive Alien Species on Land and in Water Ecosystems"- Percentage of countries adopting relevant legislation
    15.9"Integrate Ecosystem and Biodiversity in Governmental Planning"- Public expenditure on related policy initiatives
    15.A"Increase Financial Resources to Conserve and Sustainably Use Ecosystem and Biodiversity"- Public expenditure on related policy initiatives
    15.B"Finance and Incentivize Sustainable Forest Management"- Public expenditure on relevant policy initiatives
    15.C"Combat Global Poaching and Trafficking"- Proportion of traded wildlife that is trafficked

    As you can see, SDG 15 is broad and ambitious. It is focused on improving our use, management, and preservation of terrestrial ecosystems so that humanity can have a prosperous future.

    Sustainable Development Goal 15 - Key takeaways

    • SDG 15, Life on Land, is focused on the preservation, use, and management of terrestrial ecosystems.
    • Earth's terrestrial ecosystems have faced the consequence of our exponential growth.
    • Biodiversity is the variety of species found in an environment, and it has been threatened. Tens of thousands of species face extinction. Deforestation is destroying forests and biodiversity.
    • Desertification and other forms of land degradation are threatening food security.


    1. 'Sustainable Development Goal 15' United Nations
    2. Fig. 3 - Rainforest Canopy ( by Christian Ziegler licensed by CC BY-SA 2.5 (
    3. Fig. 5 - Land Degradation in the UK (, by Paul Glazzard licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (
    4. Fig. 6 - The Desertification of Land ( by LeoNunes licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    5. '15, Life on Land.' Global Goals
    6. 'Sustainable Development Goal 15' SDG Tracker
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainable Development Goal 15

    What is the 15th goal of sustainable development? 

    The 15th goal of sustainable development is SDG 15, Life on Land. It is concerned with the health of terrestrial ecosystems.

    Why is SDG 15 life on land important?

    SDG 15 Life on Land is important because it is concerned with the survival of humanity. Humans need land to provide the resources we need for survival, such as food, shelter, and water. 

    Why should we care about life on land?

    We should care about life on land because humans are life on land. If land is not cared for, human existence is threatened. 

    How can we protect our land environment?

    We can protect our land environment by meeting the targets of SDG 15. This SDG has set extensive and specific goals for nations to follow to implement policies that will preserve our terrestrial environments. 

    How does climate change affect life on land?

    Climate change affects life on land because it threatens food sources and habitats that organisms depend on for survival. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the title of Sustainable Development Goal 15?

    _____ biodiversity equals a ____ ecosystem.

    Protecting waterways from pollution is a goal of SDG 15.

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