International policy on soil protection

International climate conference in Bonn, September 2014

Unlike climate action and conservation of biodiversity, soil protection was neglected by international environment policy for a long time. In many international environmental agreements soil protection features only indirectly. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which entered into force in 1996, still is the only international agreement that deals explicitly with soils – limited, however, to arid zones.

In recent years, however, soil protection has been recognised as a global challenge and has been featuring in international debates about a sustainable development of our planet. That is why soil protection is a core issue of the 2030 Agenda which was agreed at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015. One of the goals is dedicated specifically to soil protection (goal 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).

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)


The international Convention to Combat Desertification (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, UNCCD) was drafted and adopted in the follow-up to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro environmental summit. The convention came into force in 1996; the UNCCD Secretariat has been headquartered in Bonn since 1999.

Under the provisions of the Convention, the international community undertakes to use land, water and plants in the regions threatened by desertification carefully and sustainably, in order to halt the ongoing process of degradation. The industrialised countries have pledged to support the developing countries in their efforts to combat desertification, both financially and through technology transfer.

The Global Mechanism of the UNCCD has been supporting affected countries since 1998, helping them to mobilise funding to fight desertification and foster sustainable land management. Furthermore, since 2003, the UNCCD has also been able to draw on a financing mechanism under the framework of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The Convention has helped ensure that in most countries desertification control has now been put on an institutional footing. Via national action programmes, civil society activities have been encouraged in many countries. Concrete action has been seen in food security and income generating projects, and in natural resource conservation projects. Action programmes and new strategic partnerships have also been established at the regional level. One example is the Central Asian Countries Initiative for Land Management (CACILM).

During the 12th Conference of the Parties in Ankara in October 2015, UNCCD's remit as the leading organisation for land degradation, drought and desertification was reconfirmed. It is able and supposed to give fundamental guidance and take action on these topics – and that for the entire world, not just arid zones. The UNCCD's initiatives have gained considerable importance since these topics were included in the Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 15 of the 2030 Agenda) in September 2015.

Rio+20: A world without new soil losses

Logo of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 in Rio

At the UN conference on sustainable development (Rio+20) in 2012, the goal of a "Land Degradation Neutral World" was formulated. Sustainable management is to ensure that healthy soil resources are conserved and that, at the same time, land area that has already been degraded is restored. Land degradation neutrality has been achieved if the quantity and quality of land resources that are essential for food security and other ecosystem functions and services is maintained and increased.

The international community, every country, every municipality or other local entity, should seek to achieve this status by means of regional planning, sustainable land use practices and rehabilitation activities. The countries also agreed on indicators for land degradation trends in order to have a means of measuring progress in implementation.  

Soil protection as a global sustainability goal

Logo: The Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted. In many of the 17 goals the protection of soils is included indirectly. In addition, soil protection was, for the first time, enshrined in an internationally binding manner in goal 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."

Target 15.3 stipulates that land degradation neutrality is to be achieved worldwide by 2030.

It is an important milestone that soil protection has become part of the new global development goals. It shows that even at the international level there now is awareness of the fact that soil protection is a crucial building block in joint efforts to fight poverty, hunger, climate change and loss of biodiversity. This is proof that soil protection has been recognised as an important cross-cutting issue for the transition to sustainable development.

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