This is part of a series on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This article focuses on 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

The Earth is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. We’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. Research out earlier this month shows that we cut down about 15 billion trees per year, with the global number of trees having fallen by almost 46% since the start of human civilization. We now dominate the planet.

All of this is reducing the resilience of ecosystems. But ecosystems provide the food we eat, the timber we use to build our homes, and the medicines we use to heal ourselves. Not to mention all other so-called “ecosystem services”, like clean air and water and flood and storm protection.

Goal 15 of the global goals calls for greater efforts to protect terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Human dominance on Earth has led to substantial gains in human wellbeing for those in wealthy nations through improved access to food, water and other basic needs.

The flip side has been a rapid degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of abrupt changes such as disease and pest outbreaks, and increasingly vulnerable livelihoods.

Maintaining biodiversity is an insurance policy for the functioning of the Earth system. It provides a buffer should populations or species in an ecosystem be lost. For example, maintaining a habitat for wild bees secures pollination capacity in case other pollinators disappear.

Given the scale of disruption, and the unknown consequences, we need a resilience approach to sustainable development. This approach emphasizes the role of the biosphere within – not alongside – economic development and poverty reduction.

The precursor to the SDGs, the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were criticized for overlooking the importance of natural capital and ecosystem services. How can we ensure that Goal 15, and the other environmental goals of the SDGs, are realized?

  1. Luckily we do not need to reinvent the wheel – a short cut to delivering Goal 15 is to tap into existing international environmental agreements

In a sense, the world has already acknowledged the contribution that biodiversity and ecosystem services make to human wellbeing and sustainable development. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed in 1992, led to twenty Aichi Biodiversity Targets. If the goals deliver on these targets we will make huge progress.

Furthermore, the newly established Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) can play a critical role in addressing the needs for the SDG framework to incorporate knowledge on the complex relationship between ecosystem services and human society.

  1. We need better indicators that are integrated and scalable

Measuring progress on any of the SDGs will require agreed sets of indicators for use at national, regional and international levels in all countries. Past environmental indicators have been treated separately from social and economic indicators. We now need a push towards indicators that can combine these dimensions. One example that aims to do this is the IPBES Multiple Evidence Base approach (MEB). IPBES assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services will be based on knowledge from scientists, indigenous people and other stakeholders. Placing insights from different knowledge systems side by side will enable an enriched understanding of the issues at hand, for example understanding effects of climate change in the Arctic, rangeland dynamics, or the role of sacred sites for human well-being.

  1. Finally, we need to factor social change in to the whole SDG process

Simply setting ambitious goals will not generate these changes: the goal formulation must include details of the processes needed to achieve them. Targets should also take into account ideologies, religious beliefs and institutions, including formal and informal rules and customs. This will be essential to motivate, guide and support social change towards sustainable practices at all scales of governance — globally, nationally and individually.

Have you read?
Why forests are critical to achieving the Global Goals
How protecting the biodiversity of our planet protects us all

Author: Albert Norström, Executive Director, Future Earth Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society, Stockholm Resilience Centre

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: Double-crested cormorants nest at Tommy Thompson Park located on a man-made peninsula, known as the Leslie Street Spit, in Toronto June 24, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch