Thematic Focus

Combat land degradation and desertification (SDG 15.3)

Land and land-based resources are the foundation for food security, economic growth, rural employment and development. However, terrestrial ecosystems and their services are threatened by land degradation, deforestation and desertification, driven by demographic growth, an increasing demand for food, feed and fuelwood, unsustainable agricultural and pastoral practices, and a variety of other land uses.

Every minute we are losing fertile land the size of 26 football fields. 25 per cent of the world’s land and around 60 per cent of all ecosystem services worldwide are already degraded. Estimates from the ELD Initiative on the global loss of ecosystem service values (ESV) place the respective cost between USD 6.3 and 10.6 trillion annually. This equals USD 870–1,450 per person/year (ELD - The Value of Land, 2015).

The effects of land degradation and desertification are distributed unevenly throughout human populations across our planet, and often impact the most vulnerable – the rural poor. In particular, developing countries with the majority of society still heavily depending on land and its services for a living are at most risk. Africa could lose up to 280 million tons of cereal crops per year because of land degradation, equivalent to USD 127 billion per year. Taking action by just preventing further top soil loss to increase crop productivity can have benefits of nearly USD 1 trillion over the next 15 years in Africa alone (ELD - Africa Report, 2016).

Reversing land degradation and achieving sustainable land management is essential for meeting rising demands for food, feed, wood, and other goods. Simultaneously these actions address climate change and help maintain the range of services provided by healthy terrestrial ecosystems. Sustainable and responsible investments are needed across the globe as a way to regenerate economies, create jobs and revitalize communities.

The issue of land degradation is finally receiving increased attention following the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations in 2015 with their recognition of increasing threats to current and future land productivity and the provisioning of ecosystem services (UN, 2015).

SDG 15 focuses on land and life with its pledge 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”.

Underpinning SDG 15 is the concept of land degradation neutrality (LDN) that is generally understood as “a state where the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services, remains stable or increases” (target 15.3, UNCCD 2017).

Harmonised activities of the ELD Initiative support the SDGs by providing scientific knowledge and economic approaches to sustainable land management and development through cost benefit analyses and other applicable economic tools, and scalable frameworks to action.

The ELD Initiative has demonstrated that sustainable land management (SLM) can be profitable at all scales and within a relatively short time horizon. A concerted effort to scale up SLM would certainly help achieving a number of the critical post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as supporting the G7 commitment that aims to lift 500 million people in developing countries out of hunger and malnutrition by 2030. The continued availability of productive land and soil would also offer significant co-benefits measurable in economic terms.

Roles and Interlinkages of soils and land
in the Sustainable Development Goals
(IASS (2015)38)

Ecosystem and biodiversity values / Natural Capital (SDG 15.9)

Land is a crucial part of our ecosystems and the surrounding natural environment, which provides society with the necessary services and products to develop and prosper.

Encasing land, nature is therefore vital and integral for human life and activities. Global, national or local economies depend highly on nature: While the primary sector sources natural resources directly, the processing industry is directly relying on the produced goods and services. Also, the service industry requires nature, i.e. by relying on a healthy environment, which enables a suitable environment for business interaction. Without nature, humankind cannot exist.

In spite of this, the value of nature remains invisible in decision-making: While economists have developed elaborated concepts to assess and quantify financial capital, account for the build infrastructure or assess the economic potential of employment, the contribution of nature to human wellbeing and the economy remains insufficiently understood. Development metrics, such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fail to include the environment.

(Forum for the future, 2019)

To strengthen the role of the environment in public and private decision-making the concept of Natural Capital has been introduced by Schumacher in the 1970s to complement the current understanding of human wellbeing and has been advanced continuously. Denoting nature as capital is an economic metaphor to acknowledge the value of nature for economic production and well-being. In economics, capital typically is defined as “a stock that yields a flow of valuable goods or services into the future”. Nature – like other forms of capital, e.g. manufactured capital and human capital – provides people with goods and services and is an indispensable factor to production. Land based natural capital is especially important for sustainable development due to production functions for food and produced goods.

Manufactured capitalFinancial capitalNatural capitalHuman capitalSocial capital
Machinery, tools, infractructureCash, loans, shareMinerals, fish, forests, soils and ecosystemLabor force, knowledge and educationInstitutions, laws, norms, networks
Labor force, knowledge and educationInstitutions, laws, norms, networksMinerals, fish, forests, soils and ecosystemCash, loans, shareMachinery, tools, infractructure
Minerals, fish, forests, soils and ecosystemLabor force, knowledge and educationMachinery, tools, infractructureInstitutions, laws, norms, networksCash, loans, share

To facilitate SDG 15, a transformation of the perception of growth and nature is required. National economic development targets need to be aligned with the goal of preserving land resources, which is increasingly being reflected in concepts like the ‘Green Economy’ aligning the economic prosperity with ecological boundaries. This perspective is reflected in the sustainable development sub-goal 15.9:

'By 2020, integrate ecosystems and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes and poverty reduction strategies, and accounts.'

It holds a great potential to catalyze synergies between the agendas of the three Rio-Conventions on climate protection, biodiversity and sustainable land use.

Besides providing information and insights into the relation between the environment and the economy, Natural Capital Accounts (NCA) can be utilized to monitor the progress towards reaching the vision encompassed in the Agenda 2030, especially with relation to Land Degradation Neutrality (SDG 15.3). Numerous countries have already started developing environmental accounting and realigning their economic development pathways by identifying new opportunities to integrate these values in the national planning and development strategies.

With its expertise of mainstreaming economic assessments of land-based natural capital and respective ecosystem services into decision, the ELD Initiative is well positioned to facilitate the mainstreaming of Natural Capital into national decision-making. With its focus on land, the initiative will strengthen the links between the SDG 15.3 and 15.9 by supporting countries in understanding the macro-economic benefits of sustainable land management. With the renowned ELD 6+1 approach to value ecosystem services, the ELD Initiative can provide valuable data to NCA, which reflect different management scenarios. These information provide the foundation for subsequent national efforts to transform economies.