17 SDGs, but is there a Priority SDG Target?
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In his speech to world leaders on Friday, Pope Francis listed lodging, labor and land as the bare essentials for everyone to live in dignity and to have and support a family.

But access to land is also the means to secure lodging and labor – at least for a majority of the world's population.

So I will be more blunt.

In his speech to world leaders on Friday, Pope Francis listed lodging, labor and land as the bare essentials for everyone to live in dignity and to have and support a family. But access to land is also the means to secure lodging and labor – at least for a majority of the world’s population. So I will be more blunt.

Literally, the health and productivity of the ground that we stand on will influence the future prosperity and security of humankind. It will define what the more than 2 billion livelihoods that depend on just 500,000 small scale farms will do for food and labor. It will shape how the more than 1.8 billion people that face absolute water scarcity by 2025 will live. It will guide the decisions on migration for some 135 million people by 2045. It will determine how fast the Earth’s temperature rises and whether our homes can withstand climate change shocks. It will determine who has or lacks access to education. It will determine whether women, who make up more than 40% of the agricultural labor force, get a shot at equality.

Countries that decide to address the land goal – Goal 15 – first can expect to reap quick gains in all other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And it is not the developing countries alone. Today, 169 of the world’s 192 UN Member States have declared that they are affected by land degradation. Together, just eight countries with a large potential to mitigate climate change through the land sector could help us to cut by half, the outstanding greenhouse gas emissions that we must get rid of by 2030 in order to keep temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius.

The Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative report released a fortnight ago estimates that through land degradation, we forfeit ecosystem services valued at a staggering US$6.3-$10.6 trillion every year. This is equivalent to 10-17% of global gross domestic product (GDP) lost simply through the careless management of the land; from the erosion of fertile soils and chemical overuse, to the loss of forests.

SDG target 15.3 requiring countries to become land degradation neutral (LDN) by 2030 is a pragmatic pathway to slice into the other SDGs. It provides a frame for creating a long-term vision to achieve multiple Sustainable Development Goals.

Used well, the LDN target will inspire local communities, regional authorities and national administrative units to assess their current land resource use and planning. This will offer suitable baselines for monitoring progress, evaluating trade-offs and prioritizing action on the ground at the appropriate scale.

Taking practical action to achieve the LDN target would have immediate and cumulatively significant benefits in critical areas. It would create immediate jobs for a lot of people at a relatively low cost. Experience shows that successful sustainable land management and restoration activities can be affordable and still yield multiple benefits.

For example, it can take as little as US$20 per year to rehabilitate and sustainably manage one hectare of farmland in Africa using traditional agro-forestry, water conservation and livestock management practices. China and Ethiopia have lifted a lot of poor people out of poverty through large-scale community-based, labor-intensive restoration activities.

The LDN target also has the potential to ease the new challenges arising from climate change – conflicts between and among communities, pressure to migrate and a large emissions gap.

If we pursue land degradation neutrality, we will: create jobs; protect natural carbon sinks like forests, grasslands and wetlands; scale up sustainable land management practices that reduce emissions, increase productivity and prevent further land use change; restore degraded ecosystems for improved resilience and long term carbon storage; and ensure everyone lives in dignity.

But two vital principles should guide the pursuit of land degradation neutrality. First, the people and communities whose everyday decisions and actions determine the condition and use of land resources must take part in designing and implementing the measures to restore the land. Second, the activities must happen on a landscape level. That means carrying out sustainable land management and ecosystem restoration activities together.

Land is the wellspring of life. Investing in this most precious and profitable asset will place us on the development path that will lead us towards our shared global vision of prosperity, health and dignity for all the world’s citizens. LDN is more than one target among 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It is the engine that will trigger change.

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