Countries Are Lagging Far Behind Goals to Protect Land and Ocean Ecosystems: SDG Report

Author:
Joe McCarthy

Izabela Rodzen-Olesinski (Global Citizen)

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The United Nations Sustainable Develop Goals report shows that countries are failing to protect land and marine environments. In the years ahead, countries have to dramatically increase resources dedicated to conservation and restoration. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

The latest United Nations analysis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shows that countries are failing to protect the world’s ocean and land environments. 

With 10 years to go until 2030 — the endpoint of the SDGs, after which they’ll be reassessed and updated — most markers of ocean and land integrity are declining amid reckless industrial activity that destroys ecosystems and over-exploits natural resources, according to the Sustainable Development Report 2020, which reviews countries' performances on the 17 SDGs so far. 

Overall, not a single country has achieved the 2020 targets for SDG 14: Life Below Water

As a result, the ocean is in dire shape. Ocean acidification is rapidly increasing, fish populations are declining, and small fishermen who form the backbone of many local economies are marginalized and denied fair income.

“Despite the critical importance of conserving oceans, decades of irresponsible exploitation have led to an alarming level of degradation,” the report notes.

Even though the proportion of the ocean shielded by an officially designated “marine protected area” has more than doubled since 2010, increasing to 17% of all national waters, the majority of key biodiversity areas are outside such kinds of guardianship that would prevent the most destructive actions from taking place.  

International fishing treaties follow a similar pattern. While countries have cracked down on illegal fishing and worked together to sustainably manage fisheries, the number of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels has continued to decline.

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As of 2017, 34.2% of fish stocks were unsustainably exploited. 

The report notes that because the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced international trade, countries have been given a chance to craft better marine policy. 

“The drastic reduction in human activity brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, while rooted in tragedy, is a chance for oceans to recuperate,” the report says. “It is also an opportunity to chart a sustainable recovery path that will ensure livelihoods for decades to come in harmony with the natural environment.”

Only a handful of countries have achieved the 2020 targets for SDG 15: Life on Land, which, in isolation, means very little because of the interconnected nature of the global environment. In fact, across terrestrial environments, 10 million hectares of forest are being lost annually, an estimated 31,000 species face extinction, and land equivalent to the size of India and Russia combined has been degraded.

Further, the ongoing encroachment of human activities into animal habitats, combined with the illegal harvesting of animals and wildlife, has raised the likelihood that more zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 will infect humans in the years ahead. 

“Wildlife crime, such as illicit poaching and trafficking of pangolins and other animals, not only threatens ecosystem health and biodiversity,” according to the report. “It also has the potential to disrupt human health, economic development and security around the world, as we are now witnessing first-hand.”

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The magnitude of the threats facing the natural world is staggering, but the report argues that world leaders still have time to enact laws and regulations that would allow the natural world to not only survive, but to thrive in the years ahead. 

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a chance for countries to break with reigning economic models and invest in green economic recoveries that phase out harmful industries and promote sustainability. Many countries have begun to craft plans that reimagine social contracts and their relationship with the natural world. 

For example, the European Union has prioritized “circular economy, zero pollution, biodiversity and sustainable food” in its recovery plan

At the core of this effort needs to be a rapid expansion of land and marine protected areas that greatly limits human activities in key biodiversity areas and sets the stage for regenerative economies, according to the report.  

Only then will plant and animal species be given the time and space to recover.


This year marks 10 years to go until the 2030 target to end extreme poverty and achieve the targets set out under the SDGs. With the release of the Sustainable Development Report 2020, we’re taking a deep dive into the successes we’ve already made — and barriers that still exist — when it comes to achieving the SDGs and ending extreme poverty by 2030. You can find our Sustainable Development Report 2020 content series here.