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 August 2018

Planned article update: September 2019


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 part of a set of statistical articles, which are based on the Eurostat publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2018 edition’. This report is the second 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.

Goal 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

Monitoring SDG 15 in an EU context focuses on ecosystem status, land degradation, and biodiversity. According to the selected indicators (see Table 1), the EU has made progress on improving the ecosystem status over the past few years. However, progress in slowing land degradation and increasing biodiversity has been mixed and most indicators of biodiversity, including those beyond those featured in the report, show continued and strong declines in biodiversity and species abundance[1].

Ecosystem status

Humans greatly benefit from many ecosystem services, such as clean air, purified water and food. In addition, terrestrial ecosystems offer natural resources used in industrial processes, as well as cultural services such as outdoor recreation. Other services provided by ecosystems include protection from natural disasters and the mitigation of the negative effects of climate change. Human activities that degrade ecosystems, including pollution and overuse of resources, threaten the provisioning of ecosystem services and their benefits. Hence, EU legislation such as the Birds and Habitats Directives and the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 help to ensure a healthy ecosystem status and that terrestrial ecosystems and the services they provide are sustainably used and managed. ‘Ecosystem status’ can be assessed by comparing the state of an ecosystem against the goals and objectives set within these Directives, as well as the EU Biodiversity Strategy and other policy targets. This can include legal parameters allowing certain levels of pollutants or chemicals in an ecosystem, with the main aim of averting unwanted consequences resulting from human activities. Conservation and monitoring efforts are essential in ensuring that Europe’s ecosystems remain or are restored to a healthy state.

The indicators selected for monitoring ecosystem status assess mainly abiotic parameters indicating ecosystem health, including pollutants in rivers and in groundwater as well as the share of forests in total land area. The living parts of ecosystems and their state are assessed in the section on ‘biodiversity’. Overall, the indicators on ecosystem status provide an indication of Europe’s ecosystem health for only a small portion of its land and freshwater areas. It is important to recognise the limitations of these indicators in presenting a full and complete picture of Europe’s terrestrial ecosystems, the status of which cannot be fully addressed with the available long-term datasets. Hence, though the indicators chosen show positive trends for Europe’s terrestrial ecosystems, this does not truly reflect all ecosystems (for example, wetlands, plains, mountain regions, floodplains and marshes) nor all pressures and stresses (such as other nitrate and phosphorous pollution, habitat fragmentation, noise and light pollution, water stress and availability and invasive species). However, despite these limitations, the selected indicators and the available data do provide relevant information on key aspects of SDG 15 and their implementation in the EU.

Nitrate and phosphate pollution in European rivers has decreased since 2000

The ecological status of European water bodies is an important indication of how Europe’s natural environment is faring in the face of pressures from human use. Three indicators monitor progress: biochemical oxygen demand in rivers, nitrate in groundwater and phosphate in rivers. Combined, these indicators paint a rather favourable picture of the EU's progress over the past 14 years, with decreasing levels of pollution in both rivers and groundwater bodies. In rivers, both concentrations of phosphate  (PO4) and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) have fallen since 2000, reaching levels of 0.068 milligrams (mg) of PO4 per litre and BOD of 1.94 mg of O2 per litre in 2014. However, while the decline has been more or less continuous for biochemical oxygen demand over the whole time series, phosphate concentrations have shown a recent turnaround, with increasing levels of pollution since 2011. Nitrate (NO3) levels in groundwater have developed differently as well, increasing from 2000 to 2006, and decreasing back to the levels of 2000 by 2012, at 19.1 mg of NO3 per litre.

Biochemical oxygen demand in rivers is an indicator of organic water pollution in rivers and the effectiveness of water treatment [2]. Measuring the amount of oxygen required for microbiological decomposition of organic compounds in water indicates the state of health of river systems. Fortunately, the EU has shown a positive trend in river water quality since 2000, which is helping to improve the state of aquatic ecosystems and their biodiversity. In 2014, EU levels of biochemical oxygen demand fell to 1.94 mg of O2 per litre. This represents a 31 % reduction from 2000 levels of 2.81 mg of O2 per litre. Between 2009 and 2014, the majority of EU countries saw reductions in biochemical oxygen demand in their rivers, with the exception of Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Slovakia and Romania.

Pollutants in the EU’s groundwater and rivers have generally reduced over time, though individual levels vary by Member State as well as between regions within Member States. For example, Member States’ levels of nitrate in groundwater varied widely between 2000 and 2012. Groundwater flows directly interact with rivers, lakes and wetlands, and are often used for drinking water and for agricultural irrigation. As such, groundwater has a high economic, social and environmental value [3]. Pollution of groundwater with high levels of nitrates can pose risks to public health and contribute to environmental degradation. Nitrate pollution of this kind is generally caused by the high use of mineral fertilisers and intensive agricultural practices, such as the application of slurry and manure [4]. In 2012, average EU nitrate levels were at 19.1 mg per litre (mg/l) and thus at the same level as in 2000, with the majority of Member States complying with the levels defined for safe use (below 50 mg/l). Large variations of nitrate levels in groundwater exist in different regions in the EU, spanning from less than 10 mg/l to more than 50 mg/l [5]. In some cases, similar variations can be found in Member States within their territories, regularly leading to interventions by the European Court of Justice for the failure to meet nitrate standards for groundwater. This was for example the case for France in 2014 [6] and Germany in 2016 [7]. Overall, between 2012 and 2015, 13.2 % of groundwater stations were considered polluted under the Nitrates Directive (exceeding 50 mg nitrates per litre) and regional pressures and pollution hotspots remain [8].

Phosphate in rivers can originate from agricultural production, urban wastewater and industrial discharges [9]. Negative environmental consequences of phosphate in rivers can manifest as biodiversity loss and eutrophication in rivers. On average European phosphate concentrations have fallen by 22 % since 2000, reaching levels of 0.068 mg/l in 2014. Nevertheless, the short-term trend over the past five years has been slightly unfavourable, as phosphate concentrations have been increasing since 2011. Overall, reductions in phosphate concentrations can be linked to the introduction of measures by national and European legislation (such as the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive [10]) and the switch to phosphate-free detergents [11]. Some countries, especially in eastern Europe, have higher phosphate levels in their rivers due to higher agricultural pressure as well as underequipped treatment plants for tertiary treatment.

Europe’s share of forest area has continued to improve gradually

Figure 2: Share of forest area, EU, 2009, 2012 and 2015 (% of total land area)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_15_10)

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 help mitigate climate change and regulate the microclimate [12]. Currently, forest ecosystems are under pressure from habitat change and degradation from over-exploitation [13], making EU efforts to retain and sustainably manage its forested areas increasingly important.

In 2015, forests and other wooded land covered 41.9 % of the EU’s total land area. The EU share of forests in proportion to total land area increased slightly by 2.6 percentage points between 2009 and 2015 [14]. This increase can be attributed to the increase in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) category ‘forests’ [15], which is defined as land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees larger than 5 metres high with a canopy cover of more than 10 % [16]. The share of this area increased by 1.6 percentage points between 2009 and 2015.

Though the above indicator provides an indication of the share of land dedicated to forests, it does not provide any information on the condition or growing stock of forests in the EU. Growing stock, increment and fellings of forests [17] can be used as an indicator of the economic sustainability of timber-producing operations in forests. Furthermore, data on growing stock, increment and fellings are important for calculating carbon budgets in the forest sector. For long-term economic sustainability, annual fellings should not exceed the net annual increment and according to the European Environment Agency (EEA) the ratio of fellings to increment should be less than 70 % over the long term [18]. Increases in growing stock relative to forest area indicate a maturing forest.

In general, most Member States maintained their ratio of forest fellings to increment at below 80 % in 2010, with the exception of countries such as Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden which have ratios higher than 80 %. Though these high rates of forest fellings allow the EU’s forest stock to be thinned, thus helping them to rejuvenate by leaving more open space and light for natural forest habitats to develop, they exceed the recommended average of 70 % for sustainable forest production. There is also high pressure on the EU's forests to produce more fuel wood, as the production of energy from renewable sources still depends mainly on this resource (for example, for wood chips and wood pellets). Further continued expansion of forest fellings may result in unsustainable forest management and a reduction in ecosystem services [19].

Land degradation

Land degradation is a complex phenomenon that is linked to the long-term biological productivity of land. It brings together several elements, including soil degradation and the capacity of land areas to support water resources, biodiversity and primary productivity [20]. Soil degradation by itself covers many aspects such as soil sealing and contamination, erosion by wind and water, loss of soil biodiversity, decline in organic matter, desertification, acidification and salination [21]. Not all of these can be covered in this indicator set, limiting the analysis to artificial land cover and soil erosion by water.

Artificial land cover increased in the EU despite efforts to limit soil sealing and land degradation

Land degradation through land take — meaning the conversion of natural or semi-natural land to artificial surfaces — is not only increasing across the EU, its rate is also accelerating. While artificial areas grew by 3.7 % between 2009 and 2012, this rate increased to 4.0 % between 2012 and 2015, indicating an acceleration of land use change towards artificial and urban land use [22]. Between 2006 and 2012, mainly agricultural areas were converted to artificial surfaces in the EU (51.9 % of the converted area were arable land and permanent crops, and 25.9 % were pastures and mixed agricultural areas), with lesser conversion of forests and semi-natural and natural areas (around 22 %) [23]. The conversion of these areas was mainly towards construction sites, representing transitional sites that become urbanised land in the future. Industrial and commercial sites accounted for the second largest area, followed by mines, quarries and waste sites. Residential housing and recreation were responsible for the fourth largest area [24]. Land use and land cover change on this scale, as well as the loss and fragmentation of natural ecosystems, negatively affects biodiversity and does not place the EU on track to meet its targets to limit land take to less than 800 km2 per year by 2020.

Artificial land cover per person has increased since 2009, spurred by the exploitation of natural areas for more housing and recreational sites

Figure 3: Artificial land cover per capita, by type, EU, 2009, 2012 and 2015 (m2)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_15_30)

Artificial land cover per capita has increased since 2009, despite EU efforts to limit land take and soil sealing and to increase land-use efficiency. The EU’s artificial land cover per capita spread from 347.3 m2 in 2009 to 367.2 m2 in 2015. Reasons for this trend can be linked to the growing demand for increased living space per person, including secondary homes [25], and to ever-expanding levels of economic activity and increased mobility [26]. Land as a natural and economic resource is used for a variety of purposes: agriculture and forestry; mining, manufacturing and construction; distributive trades, transport and other services, as well as for residential housing and recreation largely at the expense of natural areas [27]. The negative social and environmental consequences caused by the spread of artificial surfaces can include the escalation of flood risk, damage to biodiversity and natural habitats, the contribution to global warming and the reduction of the amount of land available for food production [28].

Estimates for soil erosion by water indicate a potential decline of soil erosion in the EU

Figure 4: Estimated severe soil erosion by water, EU-28, 2000, 2010 and 2012 (km2)
Source: Joint Research Centre (sdg_15_50)

Soil is a resource that provides multiple benefits to society, including the provision of raw materials, food production, storage, filtration and transformation of many substances including water, carbon and nitrogen [29]. Retaining soil health and natural landscapes ensures the continued provision of such benefits. Soil erosion by water is one of the major threats to soils in the EU and contributes to land degradation by removing fertile topsoil. Soil erosion by water has substantial on-site as well as off-site effects. Removing fertile topsoil reduces soil productivity and threatens crop production, quality of drinking water, habitats and biodiversity, and carbon stocks [30]. Efforts to address and mitigate soil erosion by water have generated positive results that have reduced the estimated risk of severe soil erosion by water by 14 % in the EU between 2000 and 2012. One study stated that in agricultural lands, for example, improvements due to the implementation of agro-environmental standards required under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) saw reductions in the mean rate of soil loss by water erosion up to 30 % in some Member States between 2003 and 2010 [31]. Improvements include reduced tillage, 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 [32]. However, over half of the agricultural area in the EU remains at risk of being eroded at a rate that is faster than soils can be replaced naturally (over 1 tonne per hectare per year (t/ha/yr)). Moderate to severe erosion (higher than 5 t/ha/yr) is estimated to affect nearly 13 % of EU arable soils and about 10 % of permanent pastureland, and 0.4 % of EU soils are estimated to suffer from extreme erosion (over 50 t/ha/yr).

Organic carbon content of topsoil has been declining in croplands in most EU Member States, but the picture is rather mixed for grassland

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission is currently developing an indicator measuring the organic content of topsoil in cropland and grassland soils based on the Land Use and Land Cover survey (LUCAS) for 2009, 2012 and 2015. Carbon is one of the main components of soil organic matter that constitutes fertile topsoil. Early results show that between 2009 and 2015 the topsoil organic carbon content in croplands has slightly decreased in most EU Member States. In grasslands, however, the results give a more mixed picture, with many countries showing an increase in topsoil organic carbon content and only a few showing a decline. Changes in soil organic carbon content are driven by human-induced factors, such as land management practices and land-use change, and by natural factors, such as climate, topography, vegetation and soil parental material [33].


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 Nature 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 determine a Member State’s protected areas under the EU Nature Directives and, when combined, constitute the Natura 2000 network. In 2017, the EU had protected more than 790 000 km2 of terrestrial habitats through Member State’s designated Natura 2000 sites, covering 18.2 % of EU’s terrestrial land area. Member States with the highest percentage of protected areas in 2017 include Slovenia (37.9 %), Croatia (36.6 %) and Bulgaria (34.5 %), with the lowest percentages attributed to the UK (8.6 %) and Denmark (8.3 %) [34]. The designation of additional terrestrial protected areas grew strongly until 2011, and has since then stayed more or less at the same level.

Though protected, many terrestrial habitats and species have not reached ‘favourable conservation status’ under the Habitats Directive

Figure 5: Surface of terrestrial sites designated under Natura 2000, EU-27 and EU-28, 2008–2017 (km2)
Source: European Commission services, European Environment Agency (sdg_15_20)

Assessments of the conservation status of species of European interest [35] and habitats of European interest [36] revealed that many species and habitats did not meet favourable condition standards as set out within the Habitats Directive. Across the EU (not including Greece), only 23 % of species assessments and 16 % of habitats assessments were considered ‘favourable’ in 2012, with the majority of them assessed as unfavourable (60 % for species and 47 % for habitats), unfavourable to bad, or declining (18 % for species and 30 % for habitats). Taxonomic groups with a particularly high proportion of species with a deteriorating trend in conservation status were mainly fish, molluscs and amphibians. Habitats showing a declining trend tended to be bogs, mires and fens, followed by grasslands. The majority of forests and freshwater habitat assessments were unfavourable, but with a stable trend.

Common bird species and grassland butterfly species continue to decline in Europe

Figure 6: Common bird index by type of species, EU, 1990–2015 (Index 2000 = 100)
Source: European Bird Census Council (EBCC)/BirdLife/Statistics Netherlands (sdg_15_60)

Figure 7: Grassland butterfly index, Europe, 1990-2015 (Index 2000 = 100)
Source: European Environment Agency, Butterfly Conservation Europe, Statistics Netherlands (sdg_15_61)

Changes in land use and overuse of ecosystems can harm biodiversity. As biodiversity supports all ecosystem functions by contributing to their capacity to provide ecosystem services [37], monitoring efforts are vital to preserving and restoring biodiversity levels. Birds are sensitive to both human-induced and natural environmental change, making them good indicators of wider ecosystem health. Their widespread, diverse and mobile habitats make them ideal for monitoring the results of conservation efforts [38].

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. Between 1990 and 2015, common bird species have declined by 10.3 %. Most of this decline took place before 2000, with the index remaining rather stable since then, showing a slight decline of 0.6 % between 2000 and 2015. Stronger declines are apparent for common farmland birds, which have fallen by 29.7 % since 1990, half of which (15.8 %) has occurred since 2000. This decline has largely been attributed to agricultural intensification, which has reduced natural nesting habitats through the removal of hedges, drainage of wetlands and the planting of previously uncultivated areas such as meadows and fallow fields. Agro-chemicals and changes in ploughing times for cereals have also affected common farmland birds, reducing their habitats, disrupting their breeding and decreasing available food sources [39]. Since 2010, improvements in all common bird species can be seen, with an increase of 3.4 %, while the index for common farmland birds has remained more or less stable.

While birds make great biodiversity indicators, butterflies can also act as signals of environmental and habitat health. The grassland butterfly index is based on data from 15 Member States, measuring the population trends of 17 butterfly species within the national Butterfly Monitoring Schemes [40]. According to estimates from these monitoring efforts, butterfly populations declined by more than 33 % between 1990 and 2015, signifying a dramatic loss of grassland biodiversity. Between 2000 and 2015, the grassland butterfly index fell by 17.0 %. Causes for this decline can be attributed to changes in rural land use, in particular stemming from agricultural intensification as well as land abandonment in mountains and wet regions, mainly in eastern and southern Europe. Loss of semi-natural grasslands has been particularly detrimental [41].


Along with SDG 14, SDG 15 is the key goal at international level that incorporates environmental considerations for UN member countries. In the EU, this goal ensures that ecosystem health and functioning, with 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, 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 healthy and sustainably used and managed ecosystems.

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External links

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 - 2018 edition’.


  1. See e.g. European Commission (2015), The Mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, COM(2015) 478 final, Brussels; and European Environment Agency (2015), The European Environment – state and outlook 2015, Copenhagen: EEA.
  2. European Environment Agency (2015), Oxygen consuming substances in rivers.
  3. FAO (2012), Agriculture and water quality interactions: a global overview, SOLAW Background Thematic Report —TR08, Food and Drug Administration, p.15.
  4. FAO (2012), Agriculture and water quality interactions: a global overview, SOLAW Background Thematic Report —TR08, Food and Drug Administration, p.15.
  5. European Environment Agency (2017), Nitrates in groundwater by country.
  6. European Commission (2014), Judgment of the Court (Second Chamber) 4 September 2014, Info-Curia — Case-law of the Court of Justice.
  7. European Commission (2016), Water: Commission refers GERMANY to the Court of Justice of the EU over water pollution caused by nitrates, European Commission Press Release Database.
  8. European Commission (2018), Commission report on the implementation of the nitrates directive, COM(2018) 257 final, p. 5
  9. European Environment Agency (2015), Nutrients in freshwater.
  10. Council of the European Communities (1991), Directive 91/271/EEC concerning urban waste water treatment.
  11. European Environment Agency (2015), Nutrients in freshwater.
  12. 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.
  13. European Environment Agency (2016), European forest ecosystems — State and trends, EEA Report No 5/2016, Copenhagen, EEA.
  14. Data refer to EU-23.
  15. Data stem from Eurostat’s Land Use and Cover Area frame Survey (LUCAS) but apply the FAO forest categories.
  16. FAO (2015), FRA 2015 — Terms and Definitions, Rome, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
  17. European Environment Agency (2017), Forest: growing stock, increment and fellings.
  18. European Environment Agency (2017), Forest: growing stock, increment and fellings.
  19. European Environment Agency (2017), Forest: growing stock, increment and fellings.
  20. European Environment Agency (2016), The direct and indirect impacts of EU policies on land, EEA Report No 8/2016, Copenhagen, EEA.
  21. 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.
  22. European Environment Agency (2017), Land take; European Commission (2011), Overview of best practices for limiting soil sealing or mitigating its effects in EU-27, Ch. 2.
  23. European Environment Agency (2017), Land take.
  24. European Environment Agency (2017), Land take.
  25. European Environment Agency (2017), Land take; European Commission (2011), Overview of best practices for limiting soil sealing or mitigating its effects in EU-27, Ch. 2.
  26. Eurostat (2017), Statistics Explained: Land cover statistics.
  27. Eurostat (2017), Statistics Explained: Land cover statistics.
  28. European Commission Directorate General for the Environment (2016), Soil sealing.
  29. European Commission Directorate General for the Environment (2016), Soil.
  30. European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC) (2017), Erosion by water.
  31. Panagos, P., Borrelli, P., Poesen, J., Ballabio, C., Lugato, E., Meusburger, K., Montanarella, L. and Alewell, C. (2015), The new assessment of soil erosion by water in Europe, Environmental Science & Policy 54, 438-447
  32. Matthews, A. (2013), Greening agricultural payments in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, Bio Based and Applied Economics, 2 (1) (2013), pp. 1–27.
  33. European Commission (2018), Soil Organic Carbon Content.
  34. European Environment Agency (2018), Natura 2000 Barometer.
  35. European Environment Agency (2017), Species of European interest.
  36. European Environment Agency (2018), Habitats of European interest.
  37. European Commission (2011), Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020, COM(2011) 244 final, Brussels.
  38. Eurostat (2018), Statistics Explained, Biodiversity Statistics.
  39. BirdLife International (2017), The Vanishing: Europe’s farmland birds, published online by Iván Ramírez on 12 February 2017.
  40. European Environment Agency (2018), Common birds and butterflies.
  41. European Environment Agency (2013), The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator: 1990-2011, Technical Report No 11/2013, Copenhagen, EEA.