Goal 15 - Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss. In addition to providing food security and shelter, forests are key to combating climate change and protecting biodiversity. Every year 13m hectares of forest is lost, and desertification claims 3.6bn hectares of drylands. Deforestation and desertification through human activity and climate change pose major challenges to sustainable development, and threaten the wellbeing of millions of people.
What is Goal 15?
Goal 15 aims to protect forest, desert and mountain ecosystems and halt the loss of biodiversity, supported by nine targets focused, for example, on sustainable management of woodland, restoration of degraded land and preserving endangered species. Land degradation will affect 75 percent of the world's ecosystems by 2050, with an estimated 4 billion people living in drylands, according to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. This almost exclusively man-made problem takes many forms - deforestation for palm oil production, urban sprawl for commercial and residential development and desertification caused by overgrazing. With the land being degraded on such a scale, we will have to say goodbye to a host of iconic living creatures and plants unless the targets of Goal 15 are addressed.
Why is Goal 15 important?
Like all the SDGs, Goal 15 has relationships with other goals and targets. Particularly Goal 12 (Responsible Production), and Goal 13 (Climate Action). For instance, peatlands in the Indonesian rainforests hold roughly 35 billion tons of carbon. If the peatland is destroyed, a vast amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. While these links are quite clear, an unexpected connection exists between Goal 15 and Goal 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), namely the growing evidence linking deforestation with increased rates or malaria. Dr Kelly Austin of Lehigh University states that deforestation leads to direct sunlight raising the temperature of standing pools of water, thus creating a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. And, with the predicted dramatic increase in desertification, there will be a much higher threat of malnutrition from reduced food and water supplies (Goal 2 - Zero Hunger).
How can companies contribute to Goal 15?
At first glance, the responsibility to address SDG 15 appears to fall with governments, for example Target 15.1 referring to obligations under international agreements. And it is true that local populations feel the effects of land degradation first, arguably requiring governments and supranational bodies such as the UN to take charge. However, given the long-term global consequences of land degradation, major companies can contribute more than one might think, and arguably should do more than at present.
Any company with links to agriculture, for instance, has a reason to support SDG 15, particularly target 15.3 that deals with the restoration of degraded soil. Profits of businesses that rely on the land will be adversely affected by a predicted 10% average crop failure by 2050. Similarly, timber, pulp and paper companies such as Mondi need healthy forests to survive, as outlined by target 15.2. A particular focus for a wide range of companies is the use of palm oil, a ubiquitous product that is having a devastating effect on life on land, according to Greenpeace, and is examined in more detail below.
According to Rainforest Action Network palm oil can be found in almost half the products in grocery stores, further evidenced by a rise of 458% in palm oil imports in the US alone in the last decade. Tropical rainforests in countries like Indonesia are being cleared to make way for palm plantations, with well documented negative effects on species such as Orangutans and Sumatran tigers. As consumers, choosing to avoid palm oil may seem like a solution, but the benefits are not necessarily clear cut - alternatives such as soy and rapeseed can require up to nine times as much land to grow, making palm oil one of the most land efficient vegetable oil crops. It is unlikely that an effective alternative to palm oil will arise in the short-term, businesses, particularly food retailers, therefore have a huge role to play in bringing a halt to deforestation, via more sustainable sourcing.
However, the spotlight is not only on palm oil producers and consumers but on the bodies providing certifications of sustainability. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been criticised for a lack of punitive measures for non-compliant members, whilst new branches of the RSPO have been accused of weakening traceability targets. There are signs that the RSPO is becoming more robust, the recent suspension of Nestle for failing to meet transparency standards being an example. Failure to act under the rules can result in loss of profit as well as reputation. For instance, IOI Group, a palm oil production company in Indonesia, was temporarily suspended from the RSPO after being found to be involved in illegal logging, which resulted in a significant fall in the share price on the Bursa Malaysia.
Other companies comply with the RSPO but take additional steps to fight against deforestation. As well as being a member of the RSPO, Tesco belongs to the Consumer Goods Forum and the Palm Oil Retailers Working Group. The retailer has a strong palm oil policy with targets of zero-net deforestation (also covering soy sourcing).
Strongly linked to target 15.5, as vital to biodiversity and ecosystems, is the role of bees. The drastic fall in bee populations is also regarded as a major threat to food production (bees pollinate three-quarters of all crops). Since Aldi became the first European supermarket to ban the sale of pesticides harmful to bees in 2016, there has been a growing consensus that businesses, as well as farmers, must do more. A ban on neonicotinoids will come into force this year throughout the EU. Waitrose have a "seven-point plan for pollinators", which includes investing in research and organic farming. Although not listed companies, these two give examples of steps that should be taken to assist in meeting Goal 15.
Under a business-as-usual scenario, millions of people are likely to live in inhospitable conditions in a few decades, in landscapes that are overgrazed and denuded of forests, and in wetlands that have dried up. Future generations will judge us on how we treat the earth and how we manage the conservation of critically endangered animals. Companies that support SDG 15 and thus show respect for a sustainable earth, will be judged much kinder than those that don't. Meeting SDG 15 is a massive challenge that spans the whole of the supply chain and it starts with an ethical investor.
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