Statistics Explained

SDG 15 - Life on land

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Data extracted in May 2021.

Planned article update: June 2022.


EU trend of SDG 15 on life on land

This article provides an overview of statistical data on SDG 15 ‘Life on land’ in the European Union (EU). It is based on the set of EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an EU context.

This article is a part of a set of statistical articles, which are based on the Eurostat publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGS in an EU context — 2021 edition’. This report is the fifth edition of Eurostat’s series of monitoring reports on sustainable development, which provide a quantitative assessment of progress of the EU towards the SDGs in an EU context.

SDG 15 seeks to protect, restore and promote the conservation and sustainable use of terrestrial, inland-water and mountain ecosystems. This includes efforts to sustainably manage forests and halt deforestation, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, halt biodiversity loss and protect threatened species.

Full article

Life on land in the EU: overview and key trends

Assessments of the EU’s situation concerning SDG 15 ‘life on land’, such as the State of Nature in the EU, the EU Ecosystem Assessment 2020 and the European Environment — State and Outlook 2020, show continued and strong declines in biodiversity and species abundance and continued trends of land degradation [1]. However, because of data availability issues, in this report the monitoring of SDG 15 in an EU context is more limited and focuses on selected indicators for ecosystem status, land degradation and biodiversity (see Table 1). These indicators show a mixed picture in all three areas over both the long and the short term. However, the long-term trends for common birds and butterflies confirm the negative assessments of the EU’s biodiversity reported in recent European Environment Agency (EEA) reports.

Ecosystem status

Humans greatly benefit from many ecosystem services, such as clean air, purified water and food provision. In addition, terrestrial ecosystems provide natural resources used in industrial processes and cultural services such as outdoor recreation. Other services offered by ecosystems include protection from natural disasters such as flooding and the mitigation of the negative effects of climate change. Human activities that degrade ecosystems, including pollution and the overuse of resources, threaten animals and plants and as a result the provision of ecosystem services and their benefits to human well-being [2]. Hence, EU legislation such as the Birds and Habitats Directives and policies such as the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 help to ensure a healthy ecosystem status. They also aim to ensure that terrestrial ecosystems and the services they provide are sustainably used and managed.

In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services [3]. The report provides a comprehensive assessment of how economic development pathways impact nature. Its key findings indicate that species extinction rates are accelerating. Negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystem services are expected to hinder progress towards the Agenda 2030 and its SDG targets. As such, current global conservation and sustainability goals will not be met unless transformative change is implemented.

Some types of terrestrial ecosystems (for example, wetlands, heathlands and scrub) and the pressures placed on them (such as invasive species, habitat fragmentation, and noise and light pollution) are not monitored in this report due to data shortcomings. It is therefore important to recognise the limitations in presenting a full and complete picture of Europe’s terrestrial ecosystems, the status of which cannot be fully assessed with the long-term datasets that are currently available.

Organic and phosphate pollution levels in EU rivers have been decreasing since 2000

The ecological status of European water bodies gives an important indication of how Europe’s natural environment is faring in the face of pressures from human use. Two indicators monitor progress in this area: biochemical oxygen demand in rivers and phosphate in rivers. These indicators paint a rather favourable picture of the EU’s progress over the past 18 years in making rivers cleaner.

Biochemical oxygen demand in rivers is an indicator of organic water pollution and the effectiveness of water treatment [4]. A high level of oxygen (O2) required for the microbiological decomposition of organic compounds in water indicates there is less O2 available for other river species and, as such, provides an indication of the state of a river system’s overall health. In 2018, the biochemical oxygen demand in EU rivers was 2.03 milligrams (mg) of O2 per litre (L) of water, representing a 37.7 % reduction from 3.26 mg/L in 2000. Between 2013 and 2018, 8 out of 15 reporting Member States saw reductions in biochemical oxygen demand in their rivers.

Phosphate (PO4) in rivers can originate from agricultural production, urban waste water and industrial discharges [5]. Heavy loads of phosphate in rivers can harm the environment by causing biodiversity loss and water eutrophication. European phosphate concentrations have fallen by 28.9 % since 2000, reaching 0.06 mg/L in 2018. Overall, this reduction can be linked to the introduction of measures by national and European legislation, such as the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive [6] and the switch to phosphate-free detergents [7].

Declines in phosphate concentrations in EU rivers, however, levelled off in 2011 and have even increased slightly in recent years. This tendency may be related to slower decreases in phosphorus emissions from the agricultural sector [8] and a rise in phosphorus fertiliser consumption between 2008 and 2018 in some Member States [9]. Of all the Member States, Finland and Sweden had a high proportion of rivers with the lowest concentrations of phosphate between 2016 and 2018. This is likely to be a result of their low population densities and high levels of waste water collection and treatment. In contrast, relatively high concentrations were found in some Member States with high population densities and/or intensive agriculture. The high and increasing short-term values observed, particularly in Belgium, Czechia and Lithuania, are perceived to be sufficiently high to result in freshwater eutrophication [10].

The EU’s share of forest area is growing

Europe’s forests provide multiple benefits, such as enhancing soil fertility and conserving soil moisture, storing carbon and providing habitats for animals and plants. They also provide employment in rural areas and help mitigate climate change and regulate the microclimate [11]. Currently, forests are affected by pressures from habitat degradation and loss, invasive alien species, pollutants and excessive nutrient loads, as well as climate change [12], resulting in persistent droughts and heatwaves. This means that EU efforts to retain and sustainably manage its forested areas are increasingly important.

In 2018, forests and other wooded land covered 43.5 % of the EU’s total land area. As a proportion of total land area, the EU’s share of forests and other wooded land in proportion to total land area increased slightly by 0.9 percentage points between 2015 and 2018.

Figure 1: Share of forest area, EU, 2009-2018 (% of total land area)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_15_10)

Land degradation

Land degradation is linked to the long-term functionality and biological productivity of land or land-based ecosystems. It is a complex phenomenon bringing together several elements, including soil degradation and the capacity of land to support water resources, biodiversity and primary productivity [13]. Soil degradation by itself covers many aspects such as soil sealing and contamination, erosion by wind and water, loss of soil biodiversity, compaction, decline in organic matter, desertificationn, acidification and salination [14]. Not all of these threats to soil quality can be covered in this indicator set, so the analysis has been limited to imperviousness change and soil erosion by water.

Land take is continuing to increase in the EU

Increase in the area of sealed land can be used to estimate land-use change for human use or intensification [15]. The area of sealed soil in the EU has increased in all Member States since 2006. Between 2006 and 2018, the total area covered with impervious materials grew by 5 538 square kilometres (km²) or 8.3 %.

Land take is described as the process of transforming agricultural, forest and other semi-natural and natural areas into artificial areas. It is monitored using the Copernicus CORINE land cover datasets [16], which have been published every six years between 2000 and 2018. Net land take includes the 'reverse land take process', which occurs when artificial areas are converted to semi-natural land. According to EEA data, net land take in the EU has amounted to 11 845 km2 since 2000, equalling an average annual net land take of 658 km2. Even though the rate of net land take has fallen by more than 40 % over the three observation periods, indicating a positive trend, it was still higher than the rate of land recultivation and renaturalisation. This shows there is still a long way to go to meet the ‘no net land take’ policy target for 2050 [17]

In all three observation periods, agricultural areas were the most likely to be converted to artificial surfaces, reducing the amount of land available for food and feed production [18]. This results in increased fragmentation and loss of natural habitats. Furthermore, artificial areas create plots that are isolated from functional ecosystems and can lead to increased flood risk and more frequent rapid surface run off [19]. Moreover, sealed lands cannot store carbon and thereby contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Figure 2: Soil sealing index, EU, 2006-2018 (index 2006 = 100)
Source: EEA, Eurostat (sdg_15_41)

Fewer areas in the EU are at risk of severe soil erosion by water

Soil is a resource that provides multiple benefits to society, including the provision of raw materials, food production, storage, filtration and the transformation of many substances, including water, carbon and nitrogen [20]. Maintaining soil health ensures the continued provision of such benefits. Soil erosion by water is one of the major threats to EU soils and contributes to land degradation. Removing fertile topsoil reduces soil productivity and threatens crop production, the quality of drinking water, habitats and biodiversity, and carbon stocks [21].

Efforts to address and mitigate soil erosion by water helped to reduce the estimated EU land area at risk of severe soil erosion (soil loss of more than 10t/ha/yr) by water from 198 607 km² in 2010 to 196 853 km² in 2016, equalling an average annual decrease of 0.1 %. This represents a considerable slowdown compared with the period 2000 to 2010, when the estimated area at risk fell by an average of 1.3 % per year.

In the period between 2010 and 2016, the reduction was larger in arable lands compared with all lands [22]. Here, improvements due to the implementation of agro-environmental standards required under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) may have helped to reduce the mean rate of soil loss by water erosion. This includes the application of soil conservation practices such as reduced tillage, preservation of a minimum soil cover, reduction in the area of bare soils, contour farming along slopes, maintenance of terraces and stone walls, and extended use of grass margins have helped to reduce soil erosion [23]. Overall, severe soil erosion by water is estimated to affect more than 5 % of the non-artificial erosive land area in the EU and is responsible for 52 % of total soil loss in Europe [24]. In addition, modelling results up to 2070 show that water erosion could rise by up to two-thirds compared with today [25].

Figure 3: Estimated severe soil erosion by water, EU, 2000, 2010 and 2016 (km²)
Source: Joint Research Centre, Eurostat (sdg_15_50)


Terrestrial ecosystems have been protected under the Birds Directive since 1979 and the EU Habitats Directive since 1992. Both Directives form the main pillar for the protection of Europe’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Under these Directives, Member States are required to designate and manage Special Protection Areas (SPAs; Birds Directive) and Sites of Community Importance (SCIs; Habitats Directive) and, if necessary, restore them to favourable conservation status. These sites, which are collectively known as the Natura 2000 network, significantly contribute to the protected area network of EU Member States. The Natura 2000 network is complemented by nationally designated terrestrial protected areas that are established under each Member State’s national framework.

Many terrestrial habitats and species in the EU have still not reached ‘favourable conservation status’

In 2019, the EU had protected 763 986 km2 of terrestrial habitats through designated Natura 2000 sites, covering 18 % of EU’s terrestrial land area. Member States with the highest percentage of Natura 2000 areas in 2019 include Slovenia (38 %), Croatia (37 %) and Bulgaria (35 %), with the lowest percentage attributed to Denmark (8 %). The designation of additional terrestrial protected areas grew slowly between 2014 and 2019. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 [26] includes a target for at least 30 % of EU land to be protected. This target, however, also includes national protected areas beyond Natura 2000 and can therefore not be monitored with the indicator on protected Natura 2000 sites.

The latest assessment of the State of Nature in the EU reveals that many species and habitats of European interest still do not meet favourable condition standards as set out in the Habitats Directive [27]. The conservation status of habitats did not improve over the reporting period (2013–2018), but for species other than birds a slight improvement can be stated. Across the EU, about a quarter (27 %) of species assessments and 15 % of the habitat assessments show a good conservation status, compared with 23 % and 16 % respectively in 2015. The majority of the assessments considered have, however, a poor or bad conservation status at EU level (63 % for species and 81 % for habitats). Moreover, a look at the trends reveals that only 6 % of species assessments and 9 % of habitat assessments showed improving trends in the reporting period, while 35 % and 36 % indicated a deteriorating trend at EU level, respectively.

The State of Nature report also shows that fish and molluscs continue to have a particularly high proportion of species (around 30 % each) with a bad conservation status, while reptiles and vascular plant species have the highest proportion of good conservation status (36 % and 40 % respectively). Dune habitats and bogs, mires and fens habitats have the highest share of assessments showing a bad conservation status (around 50 % each). Grasslands, which contain some species-rich habitats that are particularly suitable for pollinator species, have also one of the highest proportions of bad conservation status assessments (49 %) [28].

Figure 4: Surface of terrestrial sites designated under Natura 2000, EU, 2013-2019 (km²)
Source: European Commission services, EEA, Eurostat (sdg_15_20)

Common bird species and grassland butterfly species are in long-term decline in Europe

Changes in land use and overuse of ecosystems can harm biodiversity. Because biodiversity supports all ecosystem functions and contributes to their capacity to provide ecosystem services [29], it needs to be monitored so it can be preserved and restored. Birds are sensitive to both human-induced and natural environmental change, making them good indicators of wider ecosystem health. Their widespread and diverse habitats also make them ideal for monitoring the results of conservation efforts [30].

The EU common bird index tracks population abundance and diversity of a selection of common bird species in the EU, typified by common forest and farmland bird species. The index shows a 6.3 % decline in common bird species and a dramatic 28.5 % fall in farmland bird species between 1990 and 2019. Forest bird species, on the other hand, appear to be recovering from earlier losses, with their index gaining 5.2 % over the whole period. The decline in common farmland birds has largely been attributed to agricultural intensification, which has reduced natural nesting habitats such as hedges, wetlands, meadows and fallow fields. Agro-chemicals and changes in ploughing times for cereals have also affected common farmland birds, disrupting their breeding and decreasing available food sources [31]. The situation is not improving for common farmland birds, despite losses slowing in recent years. Overall, the decline in common birds appears to have drawn to a halt, showing a 1.7 % reduction since 2004 but a 0.6 % gain since 2014.

Butterflies — which are among the most common plant pollinators — are well suited to act as signals of environmental and habitat health. They occur in a wide range of habitat types and are sensitive to environmental change. The most recent report Assessing Butterflies in Europe (ABLE) — Butterfly Indicators 1990–2018 [32] presents new butterfly indicators for widespread species, woodland butterflies, as well as butterflies in urban environments, in Natura 2000 areas and as climate change indicators. Trends and indicators can be calculated for 167 (35 %) of the 483 butterfly species occurring in Europe and increasingly representing biogeographic zones across Europe.

The grassland butterfly index is based on data from 17 Member States, measuring the population trends of 17 butterfly species within the national Butterfly Monitoring Schemes. According to estimates from these monitoring efforts, butterfly populations declined by 25.4 % between 1991 and 2018, signifying a dramatic loss of grassland biodiversity. Much of this decrease has occurred over the past 15 years, with the index falling by 19.9 % between 2003 and 2018. While the decline has slowed in the past few years, the grassland butterfly index still fell by 6.0 % between 2013 and 2018. Causes for this decline can be attributed to changes in rural land use, in particular stemming from agricultural intensification and land abandonment in mountains and wet regions, mainly in eastern and southern Europe. The loss of semi-natural grasslands has been particularly detrimental [33]. Butterflies show a moderate decline in non-urban areas but they are stable within urban areas in the whole of Europe, suggesting that parks and other green parts of the urban environment are becoming increasingly suitable and provide butterfly-friendly management. However, the situation of butterflies in urban areas requires further research, as the findings of different works contrast [34].

Figure 5: Common bird index, by type of species, EU, 1990-2019 (index 2000 = 100)
Source: European Bird Census Council (EBCC)/BirdLife/Statistics Netherlands, Eurostat (sdg_15_60)

Figure 6: Grassland butterfly index, EU, 1991-2018 (index 2000 = 100)
Source: EEA, Butterfly Conservation Europe, European Butterfly Monitoring Scheme partnership, Assessing Butterflies in Europe (ABLE) project, Eurostat (sdg_15_61)


Along with SDG 14, SDG 15 is one of the key goals at international level that incorporates environmental considerations for UN member countries. In the EU this goal ensures that the health and functioning of ecosystems and the delivery of ecosystem services remain a priority, especially in the face of global trends such as population growth, accelerating urbanisation and the increasing need for natural resources. Ecosystem services provided by terrestrial ecosystems offer many benefits to society, including recreation, natural resources, food, clean air and water, as well as protection from natural disasters and mitigation of climate change. However, human activities that damage ecosystems and increase land degradation threaten the provision of these services and diminish biodiversity. Thus, the EU endeavours to ensure ecosystems are healthy and sustainably used and managed.

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More detailed information on EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as indicator relevance, definitions, methodological notes, background and potential linkages, can be found in the introduction of the publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGS in an EU context — 2021 edition’.


  1. See, for example, EEA (2019), The European environment — state and outlook 2020. Knowledge for transition to a sustainable Europe; EEA (2020), State of nature in the EU. Results from reporting under the nature directives 2013–2018; Maes et al. (2020), Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services: An EU ecosystem assessment; Díaz et al. (2019), Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
  2. Diaz et al. (2019), Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
  3. Ibid.
  4. European Environment Agency (2019), Oxygen consuming substances in European rivers.
  5. European Environment Agency (2020), Nutrients in freshwater in Europe.
  6. Council of the European Communities (1991), Directive 91/271/EEC concerning urban waste water treatment.
  7. European Environment Agency (2020), Nutrients in freshwater in Europe.
  8. European Environment Agency (2020), Nutrients in freshwater in Europe; and Eurostat (2018), Agri-environmental indicator — risk of pollution by phosphorus.
  9. Eurostat (2018), Agri-environmental indicator — risk of pollution by phosphorus.
  10. European Environment Agency (2020), Nutrients in freshwater in Europe.
  11. World Bank (2017), Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals 2017: World Development Indicators, Washington, DC: World Bank, p. 90; European Commission (2013), A New EU Forest Strategy: for forests and the forest-based sector, COM(2013) 659 final, p.2.
  12. European Environment Agency (2016), European forest ecosystems — State and trends, EEA Report No 5/2016, Copenhagen.
  13. European Environment Agency (2016), The direct and indirect impacts of EU policies on land, EEA Report No 8/2016, Copenhagen. European Environment Agency (2019), Land degradation knowledge base: policy, concepts and data, European Topic Centre on Urban, Land and Soil Systems (ETC/ULS) Report No 1/2019, Vienna.
  14. European Commission (2012), The implementation of the Soil Thematic Strategy and ongoing activities, COM(2012) 46 final; FAO (2015), Status of the World’s Soil Resources, Food and Drug Administration, Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  15. European Environment Agency (2020), Imperviousness and imperviousness change.
  16. European Environment Agency (2018) Land take in Europe.
  17. Data stem from the EEA’s ‘Land take and net land take indicator dashboard’.
  18. Data stem from the EEA’s ‘Land take and net land take indicator dashboard’.
  19. European Environment Agency (2017), Landscapes in transition: An account of 25 years of land cover change in Europe, EEA Report No 10/2017.
  20. European Commission Directorate General for the Environment, Soil and Land.
  21. European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC) (2017), Erosion by water.
  22. Panagos et al. (2020), A soil erosion indicator for supporting agricultural, environmental and climate policies in the European Union, Remote Sensing 12 (9), p. 1365.
  23. Panagos et al. (2020), A soil erosion indicator for supporting agricultural, environmental and climate policies in the European Union, Remote Sensing 12 (9), p. 1365; and Panagos et al. (2016), Soil conservation in Europe: wish or reality? Land Degrad. Dev., 27, pp. 1547–1551.
  24. Panagos et al. (2015), The new assessment of soil loss by water erosion in Europe, Environmental Science & Policy 54, 438–447.
  25. Borrelli et al. (2020), Land use and climate change impacts on global soil erosion by water (2015-2070), PNAS September 8, 2020 117 (36) 21994–22001.
  26. European Commission (2020), EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 — Bringing nature back into our lives, COM(2020) 380 final.
  27. European Environment Agency (2020), State of nature in the EU. Results from reporting under the nature directives 2013 – 2018, EEA Report No 10/2020.
  28. European Environment Agency (2020), State of nature in the EU. Results from reporting under the nature directives 2013 – 2018, EEA Report No 10/2020.
  29. European Commission (2020), EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 — Bringing nature back into our lives, COM(2020) 380 final.
  30. Eurostat (2018), Statistics Explained, Biodiversity Statistics.
  31. BirdLife International (2017), The Vanishing: Europe’s farmland birds, published online by Iván Ramírez on 12 February 2017.
  32. Van Swaay et al. (2020), Butterflies in Europe - Butterfly Indicators Revised.pdf Assessing Butterflies in Europe - Butterfly Indicators 1990-2018, Technical report. Butterfly Conservation Europe & ABLE/eBMS (
  33. European Environment Agency (2013), The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator: 1990-2011, Technical Report No 11/2013, Copenhagen, EEA.
  34. Van Swaay et al. (2020), Butterflies in Europe - Butterfly Indicators Revised.pdf Assessing Butterflies in Europe - Butterfly Indicators 1990-2018, Technical report. Butterfly Conservation Europe & ABLE/eBMS (