SDG 15 Life on land

SDG 15 concerns protection, restoration and sustainable management of all forms of life on land. Nature, wildlife and healthy ecosystems are indispensable for well-being and life on earth. Once ecosystems and biodiversity are destroyed, the damage may prove irreparable.

Summary of results
Dashboard and indicators
SDG 15 Life on land
Further reading

Summary of results

  • Medium-term trends (2015-2022) for four of the 13 indicators are moving towards declining well-being: one spatial indicator (area per capita) and three biodiversity indicators (the Red List Index, farmland birds and fauna on land).
  • Two indicators are trending towards increasing well-being: area of land-based nature in Netherlands Nature Network (NNN) and nitrogen surplus.
  • For four indicators for which the Netherlands can be compared with other EU countries, it is in the last quadrant (near the bottom of the rankings). For two it is in the top quadrant (among the leaders).
  • Phosphorus and nitrogen surplus data are available for around half of EU countries. The Netherlands is trailing in the EU rankings for both.
  • Spending on the environment and on environmental protection as a percentage of GDP are both high compared with other EU countries.

Dashboard and indicators

SDG 15 concerns the protection, restoration and sustainable management of all forms of life on land. Protecting and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity can increase resilience to increasing population pressure, more intensive land use and climate change. Healthy ecosystems are fundamental to crucial basic factors of well-being, such as clean water and air, suitable habitats for pollinators, and opportunities for leisure, recreation and education. Nature has intrinsic value for well-being ‘here and now’ as well as for future generations. It is also a critical factor: once ecosystems are destroyed, the damage may prove irreparable.

The Dutch government’s Climate Agreement sets reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions by agriculture and through land use. See also SDG 13 Climate action. Under the National Agricultural Soils Programme (NPL), all Dutch agricultural landowners should be applying sustainable soil management methods by 2030, so that the soil can function optimally and soil quality is and remains as high as possible for future generations. Sustainably managed soils are also important for SDG 2 Zero hunger.

The dashboard presents a sombre image. Medium-term trends (2015-2022) for indicators on available space and biodiversity point to declining well-being. International comparison puts the Netherlands among the stragglers for half of the indicators. On the other hand, expenditure on the environment and on environmental protection is relatively high compared with other EU countries.

SDG 15 Life on land  

Resources and opportunities

The long-term trend indicates a decline in broad well-being


The long-term trend indicates a rise in broad well-being
The long-term trend indicates a rise in broad well-being


The long-term trend indicates a decline in broad well-being
The long-term trend indicates a decline in broad well-being
The long-term trend indicates a decline in broad well-being

Subjective assessment


Resources and opportunities concern how much natural land there is and available resources for its conservation, restoration and protection. In 2021 government expenditure on environmental protection amounted to 1.4 percent of GDP, which is high compared with other EU countries. Total environmental expenditure (environmental costs and investment by governments and businesses) is also relatively high compared with that in other EU countries.

As the population continues to grow, the available area per person is decreasing further; the trend is red. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe; within the EU only the inhabitants of Malta have less space per person. Insufficient data are available to calculate a trend for how much of Dutch land is accounted for by natural and forested areas (excluding natural water and natural grasslands). CBS is currently developing better methods to measure land use, by means of digital maps showing predominant land use at ground level for each area. By including new sources and using improved methodology, data will be more up to date and will also be consistent with the ecosystem accounts

Another indicator from the ecosystem accounts relevant here is the ‘green and blue’ area per capita, excluding regular agriculture. In 2021 this was just over 904 m², and the medium-term trend is neutral. More and more Dutch farmers are undertaking some form of nature management on their fields and grasslands, but this growth masks the decline in the number of landscaping elements such as hedgerows, shrubberies, tree rows and woods across the Netherlands. To keep the focus here on nature, farmland on which no form of nature management takes place is not included in the data. The green and blue space indicator also excludes the North Sea, as it would be so dominant in terms of surface area it would overshadow developments in all other landscape units. Moreover, the inclusion of the entire Dutch sector of the North Sea would not be representative of the available space per Dutch person. The areas of the Wadden Sea and the IJsselmeer have been included, however, which explains the relatively high number of square metres per capita.

Use relates to the protection and use of natural space and its ecosystems and the pressure human activity puts on the whole system. The Netherlands Nature Network (NNN) covers both existing and planned land nature areas. In 2021, NNN areas accounted for 20.7 percent of the total land area. The trend is upwards, in line with the agreement between state and provincial government to establish at least 80 thousand hectares of new natural resources between 2011 and the end of 2027. In 2021, 45,568 hectares (57 percent) of this had been realised. Further improvement of conditions for vulnerable flora and fauna will therefore still require a substantial effort in the next few years.

Phosphorus and nitrogen surpluses, mainly caused by agriculture, have negative consequences for the quality of surface water and ecosystems such as heathland, forests and dunes. Data on these surpluses are only available for half of EU countries, but the Netherlands was among the stragglers in the EU for both phosphorus and nitrogen in 2019. One hopeful sign is the change in trend direction for nitrogen surplus per hectare of farmland according to the agricultural mineral accounts: the medium-term trend is now downward (green). The smaller nitrogen surplus is the result of the lower nitrogen content of grass and especially the decrease in livestock numbers. Added to this, the war in Ukraine has affected the supply and pushed up the price of artificial fertilisers.

Outcomes relate to the quality of ecosystems and biodiversity. Excess nitrogen in soil causes loss of rare flora and fauna. Ammoniac – mainly from agriculture – is a main factor in this, but nitrous oxides emitted by traffic and industry also play a role. The risk of vulnerable flora disappearing increases when nitrogen deposition exceeds its critical load value. The greater the excess and the longer it lasts, the greater the detrimental effects. As nitrogen deposition usually occurs not far from the source that emits it, reduction of emissions in the vicinity of nature areas would seem to have greatest benefit. Habitats which require low-nutrient conditions are especially sensitive to environmental pressure from nitrogen deposition.

The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has calculated new deposition data, in which data for recent years have been revised. The new data reveal that the area of natural land on which nitrogen exceeded the critical load value has decreased in the last 25 years, from three-quarters to less than two-thirds. In spite of this long-term decrease, environmental pressure from nitrogen deposition was high. The figure for 2021, when nitrogen exceeded the critical load value in 62.4 percent of all land-based nature, was also favourably affected by the warm dry summer weather in that year: less precipitation results in less wet deposition. All in all, the medium-term trend is neutral. Only 16 percent of natural land is in a healthy condition.

Ecosystem conditions are a cause for concern in the Netherlands, but biodiversity is not doing very well either according to three declining medium-term trends (2015-2022) in the dashboard. The indicator for farmland birds used here is the Dutch version of the EU Farmland Bird Indicator (FBI). This version is based on the status of 27 species of meadow, field and farmyard birds prevalent in the Netherlands, and is used as a measure of the quality of agricultural land. Here the downward trend points to a sharp deterioration in habitats for these species: the index (1995=100) was 57.4 in 2021. Goose populations are flourishing, but these birds occur on other types of land as well as farmland, and are not viewed as farmland birds. A second biodiversity indicator is the Red List Indicator. This indicator also points towards (a slight) decline. In 2021, 60.8 percent of species (across seven species groups of animals and higher plants) in the Netherlands were not at risk. The trend here is also red, as the proportion of species that are at risk is increasing slightly. Lastly, the trend in populations or distribution (depending on the species measured) of Dutch land fauna is also red. This index is based on measurement of native species of mammals (26), breeding birds (130), reptiles (7) and butterflies (51) characteristic of forests heathland, dunes and extensively managed grasslands.

Subjective assessment describes people’s perception of the quality of natural areas and their concerns about pollution and the disappearance of species. In 2022, 13.8 percent of the adult population reported nuisance from waste, pollution or other environmental problems. The trend is neutral, but the nuisance was clearly less than in 2021 (15.9 percent). The Netherlands occupies a middle position in Europe.

Further reading

Dossier Milieu en economie
Meetprogramma’s voor flora en fauna – kwaliteitsrapportage NEM over 2021
Natuurlijk Kapitaal
Compendium voor de Leefomgeving (