Soils are subject to varying degrees of direct or indirect human disturbance, constituting a major global change driver. Factoring out natural from direct and indirect human influence is not always straightforward, but some human activities have clear impacts. These include land-use change, land management and land degradation (erosion, compaction, sealing and salinization). The intensity of land use also exerts a great impact on soils, and soils are also subject to indirect impacts arising from human activity, such as acid deposition (sulphur and nitrogen) and heavy metal pollution. In this critical review, we report the state-of-the-art understanding of these global change pressures on soils, identify knowledge gaps and research challenges and highlight actions and policies to minimize adverse environmental impacts arising from these global change drivers. Soils are central to considerations of what constitutes sustainable intensification. Therefore, ensuring that vulnerable and high environmental value soils are considered when protecting important habitats and ecosystems, will help to reduce the pressure on land from global change drivers. To ensure that soils are protected as part of wider environmental efforts, a global soil resilience programme should be considered, to monitor, recover or sustain soil fertility and function, and to enhance the ecosystem services provided by soils. Soils cannot, and should not, be considered in isolation of the ecosystems that they underpin and vice versa. The role of soils in supporting ecosystems and natural capital needs greater recognition. The lasting legacy of the International Year of Soils in 2015 should be to put soils at the centre of policy supporting environmental protection and sustainable development.