About 40 percent of the Earth’s land has experienced significant degradation due to mismanagement and misuse of soil, water and biodiversity. This directly affects half of the world’s population. If nothing changes, the situation will only get worse, according to the United Nations.
This warning is in the report Global Country Outlook 2 with subtitle Land Recovery for Recovery and ResilienceIt was released last week under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The publication, which has been in preparation for five years, contains a comprehensive overview of current land degradation and outlines three scenarios for the future (see box below).
It will have far-reaching consequences if the current pace continues. Then, by 2050, an additional 16 million square kilometers of land, an area roughly the size of South America, will be affected.
Additional danger to vulnerable groups
More than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is no longer in its natural state due to human activities. More than half of those — about 40 percent — have significantly deteriorated. This is due in part to agriculture, mining, urbanization, infrastructure construction, and unsustainable use of land and water.
This land degradation threatens about half of the global economy—about $44 trillion annually—and also affects vulnerable groups such as smallholder farmers, women, youth, and indigenous peoples. For example, 2.3 billion people live in countries experiencing water stress, while droughts between 1998 and 2017 directly affected at least 1.5 billion people. As it stands, half of the world’s population is at serious risk of water scarcity by 2020.
According to UNCCD Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw, modern agriculture in particular has changed the face of the planet. “We urgently need to think about our global food systems. They are responsible for 80 percent of deforestation and 70 percent of fresh water use and are the biggest cause of biodiversity loss on Earth.”
Great potential for land recovery
An important part of the report is a study conducted by the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), the results of which were published in June 2021. This shows the potential for land restoration. The PBL study shows that restoration measures and sustainable land management can restore 5.2 billion hectares of land (or 52 million square kilometres) worldwide. Countries have also already expressed an ambition to restore 1 billion hectares of land by 2030, an area the size of China or the United States.
This will require $1.6 trillion in the current decade, according to the publication of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. This is said to be a fraction of the $700 billion that goes into “harmful” subsidies for fossil fuels and agriculture annually. The report identifies hundreds of practical ways to restore land and ecosystems. Small selection: Terraces, contour farming, watershed conservation and restoration, rainwater harvesting and storage.
Investing in large-scale land restoration cost-effectively
An example of an ongoing recovery initiative is the Great Green Wall being built across Africa. It concerns a wide strip of trees about 8000 km long in the Sahel-Saharan region. According to the report, every dollar invested in remediation of degraded land results in benefits ranging from $7 to $30.
“Investing in large-scale land renewal is a powerful and cost-effective tool to combat desertification, soil erosion and the loss of agricultural production. As a finite resource and our most valuable natural asset, we cannot afford to take land for granted,” says Thiaw. It is intended to conclude new agreements on this subject during the fifteenth World Summit of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention to Combat Desertification. It will be held from May 9-20 in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast.
Three scenarios up to 2050
1) Business as usual
This is not a viable path, according to the UNCCD report. This will lead to additional land degradation (16 million km²), lower plant productivity on a portion of the land for agriculture and livestock, more loss of natural areas and significant additional emissions of carbon dioxide.2†
It assumes the restoration of nearly 5 billion hectares of land (35 percent of the global land area) through measures such as agroforestry, grazing management and assisted natural regeneration. Crop yields then increase by 5 to 10 percent in most developing countries. The water-holding capacity of the soil will also increase by 4 percent in rain-fed fields. Biodiversity continues to decline, but at a slower rate than in the first scenario.
3) RECOVERY AND PROTECTION
Land restoration measures are complemented by measures to protect areas important to, among other things, biodiversity, water management, soil conservation and carbon stocks. This provides 4 million square kilometers of additional nature reserve. A third of biodiversity loss is also prevented through “business as usual.”
Global Country Outlook Report 2
Summary for policy makers
Explanation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
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