18 February 2016
Biodiversity and Land in the SDGs: A Forward-looking Review
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While the SDGs have given the UNCCD and the CBD a renewed sense of optimism and urgency for achieving their agendas, much remains to be worked out as the mechanisms for monitoring and implementation of the 2030 Agenda are decided.

Now that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has been adopted and the pivotal year of 2015 has concluded, this policy update looks back on how natural resource issues, specifically land and biodiversity, are reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and how this new and highly visible development platform aligns with and may influence intergovernmental discourse and action on existing biodiversity and land agendas.

Overall, the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs synergistically positioned sustainable development and natural resource issues, elevating consideration of biodiversity, forest, water, land and oceans issues as essential to achieving a higher quality of life for all. It advanced recognition of the symbiosis between sustainable natural resource management and sustainable human development.

Yet, land and biodiversity are the explicit subjects of two Rio Conventions, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), both of which have reporting and evaluation mechanisms in place, and both of which were working toward their own mandates and strategies long before the international community commenced the 2030 Agenda process. Other than promoting the linkages between sustainable development and natural resource issues, how do the SDGs interface with these established agendas?

Reflecting on the events of 2015 as captured by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Natural Resources Policy & Practice knowledge base, this policy update investigates this question. It suggests that the CBD has seen a reinforcement of its existing agenda in the SDGs, and that the UNCCD used the Goals to draw attention to and enhance the relevance of its mandate. The nuances of how the relationships between the Conventions and the 2030 Agenda are expected to develop, especially as implementation mechanisms are decided, is the subject of a series of IISD policy updates.


In the lead up to the adoption of the SDGs, the CBD Secretariat and its Conference of the Parties (COP) worked to raise awareness of the importance of natural resources, especially biodiversity, to sustainable development. These links were a primary focus of the 2014 CBD COP, as well as the International Day for Biological Diversity. A central aim was to see biodiversity mainstreamed across the sustainable development agenda and recognition of its relevance to the achievement of multiple goals and targets.

In July 2014, the CBD Secretariat reacted positively to the Open Working Group’s (OWG) proposed SDGs, noting that the final outcome was “extremely positive from the perspective of the CBD and the implementation of the Strategic Plan…” and highlighting that the agreement set the stage for linkages between the implementation of the CBD’s agenda and the post-2015 development agenda. It welcomed the two goals directly related to biodiversity: Goal 15 (Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss); and Goal 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources). It also welcomed the “close parallel of the language” of the SDGs with the Strategic Plan and relevant language in Goal 2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture); Goal 6 (Ensure access to water and sanitation for all); and Goal 11 (Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), as well as the chapeau.

On the use of the year 2020 for a number of proposed targets under Goal 15, the Secretariat concluded that, “the setting of the date of 2020 for achievement of many of the SDG targets demonstrates an integration of the work of the CBD in the broader development agenda.”

Later in 2014, the CBD COP 12 held in October continued to draw strong links between achievement of the SDGs and the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020) and its twenty Aichi Targets. The COP served as the mid-term review of the Strategic Plan, with the basis for the discussions, the ‘Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-4),’ emphasizing that the Aichi Targets could not be met in isolation, and could contribute to broader development goals. It called for the mainstreaming of biodiversity in the SDGs. The outcome of the COP’s high-level segment, the ‘Gangwon Ministerial Declaration on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development’ underscored the contributions of the Strategic Plan and Targets to the post-2015 development agenda and called on the international community to recognize and link the two processes. (See Biodiversity in 2014: A Year in Review)

In June 2015, as the zero draft of the 2030 Agenda was finalized and readied for adoption at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, the CBD Secretariat released a notification discussing issues with regard to how biodiversity was considered in the draft. In addition to calling for additional references to natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity throughout the document, the Secretariat highlighted that the SDG-biodiversity-related targets used 2020 as the date for their achievement to “ensure that the SDGs do not fall below the ambition level of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.” (The year 2020 is used for 6 of the 9 targets in Goal 15.) Yet, the CBD notification stressed the importance of finding a way to include biodiversity issues in the SDGs beyond 2020, to ensure they remain a focus through 2030, calling this “an issue of importance not only for the CBD, but for the other global biodiversity agreements that also have aligned their work with the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020.” (See IISD RS Story on the CBD’s Analysis of the Zero Draft)

While the use of related language and the year 2020 in the 2030 Agenda reinforced the targets and agenda set under the CBD, it does beget the question of how biodiversity issues will be handled beyond 2020. With the CBD COP 13 scheduled for December 2016, (paragraph 13 of the 2030 Agenda “looks forward” to this meeting), there is time to see if this ten-year gap will be addressed through the development of SDG indicators and monitoring mechanisms and if so, how this will impact the consideration of this issue by the COP.

Overall, it is not yet clear if or how the CBD’s implementation and monitoring mechanisms, including those for resource mobilization and national reporting (National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans or NBSAPs), will link into SDG follow-up and monitoring. This will be an important avenue for determining the extent to which the two agendas are mutually supportive – and it means that the December 2016 CBD COP, the proceedings of the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goals Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) and the decisions taken at the High-level Political Forum on SDG follow-up and monitoring will be important to watch.


The year 2015 was an active year for advocates of land and soil conservation, as it served as the International Year of Soils (IYS 2015) and marked the 12th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 12) to the UNCCD. COP 12 was held one month after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and one month before the Paris Climate Change Conference — an auspicious time for highlighting the importance of land to both the climate and sustainable development agendas.

As indicated by IISD in its summary and analysis of COP 12, the UNCCD capitalized on the opportunity to embrace the SDGs, especially SDG 2 (end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture), and SDG 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) and its target 15.3 to, “By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world.” The target of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) was the hook the UNCCD needed to firmly link itself to the SDGs. The COP decided that striving to achieve target 15.3 would be a “strong vehicle for driving implementation of the UNCCD.” Capitalizing on the momentum of the 2030 Agenda, the COP adopted the LDN by 2030 target and agreed on indicators (trends in land cover, land productivity and carbon stocks above and below ground) to be used to measure progress. It also invited countries to set voluntary targets to achieve LDN. (See also IISD Policy Update #13.) Parties to the UNCCD have not yet determined how these voluntary targets will be pursued and monitored.

Leading up to the COP, the UNCCD’s Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC) reported that NAPs, which are the central instrument for UNCCD implementation on the ground, were treated as perfunctory exercises and were not the focus of serious implementation activities. Delegates to the CRIC pointed out that the adoption of the SDGs could help countries to refocus their efforts in this regard. It will become clearer as SDG indicator and monitoring mechanisms are set into motion, if reporting on LDN within the context of the SDGs will also help further UNCCD implementation at the national level.

Like the CBD, the UNCCD also has a plan of action for a specific time frame, the Ten-Year Strategy (2008-2018). Indicators adopted at COP 11 for use (starting in 2016) tie to this Strategy as well as to the other Rio Conventions (notably indicators on trends in carbon stocks above and below ground (Climate) and on trends in abundance and distribution of selected species [Biodiversity]). Some are now looking to understand what the UNCCD will do when its Ten-Year Strategy concludes in 2018, twelve years before the SDGs are completed. As is the case for the CBD, the decisions taken by the international community on SDG follow-up and monitoring will likely play into how the UNCCD moves forward – both with its ties to the 2030 Agenda and to the other Rio Conventions. One meeting to note is an upcoming special 2016 session of the CRIC, which will convene to discuss methodological questions related to reporting and LDN target setting.

While the SDGs have given the UNCCD and the CBD a renewed sense of optimism and urgency for achieving their agendas, much remains to be worked out over this year as the mechanisms for monitoring and implementation of the 2030 Agenda are decided. Without a doubt, SDG implementation will garner attention and resources that could advance natural resource agendas – but how this plays out depends on which indicators, lead actors and main processes are selected and employed. With many of the proposed indicators for Goal 15 still under review, this, along with the decisions taken at the HLPF, will be important processes to follow as the 2016 “year of implementation” takes shape.

The author wishes to thank Stefan Jungcurt, Faye Leone, Wangu Mwangi and Lynn Wagner for their valuable input to this Policy Update.

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