Land degradation has reached a “critical” level across the globe, with 75 per cent of land degraded, and projections for an increase to over 90 per cent by 2050, says a new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
The U.N.-backed study was released alongside a suite of regional assessments of biodiversity. It took three years to carry out, and draws on over 3,000 sources from scientific, government, Indigenous and local knowledge.
The study shows that land degradation is causing significant losses in biodiversity and ecosystem services – such as water purification, food security and energy provision – and compromising the wellbeing of at least 3.2 billion people around the world.
Land degradation exacerbates global climate change, through deforestation and the release of carbon stored in the soil. Additionally, as land becomes less productive, the societies that depend on it can become less stable, and violent conflict is more likely to emerge, the researchers warn.
The most important driver of land degradation worldwide is the rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands, which now cover over a third of the Earth’s land surface. Wetlands have been particularly affected, with 54 per cent of these ecologically distinct areas lost since 1990.
And what’s driving that? High per-capita consumption in developed economies, coupled with rising consumption in developing and emerging ones, and amplified by sustained population growth in many parts of the world, say the researchers.
Restoration a wise investment
The study found that it makes environmental and economic sense to stop and reverse land degradation – and to do so as quickly as possible.
In 2010, land degradation cost the equivalent of around 10 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) through lost biodiversity and ecosystem services. The financial benefits of restoration, the researchers found, are around 10 times higher than their costs. In some parts of the world, doing nothing to halt land degradation would cost at least three times as much as doing so.
And it’s important to start now: as available land decreases and population increases, the problem will only become more difficult and more costly to solve.
Moving to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation would also provide over a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse-gas-mitigation activities required by 2030 to keep global warming to well under 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, a target established by the 2015 U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change, say the researchers.
There are plenty of ways to begin, with successful examples of land restoration to be found in virtually every ecosystem. Both ancient and modern techniques will be part of the solution, and land must be managed holistically at the landscape scale, they say.
In this globalised world, it’s also important to look at where our products and resources come from, since those of us who benefit from over-exploitation of the world’s resources are often cushioned from the direct negative impacts of degradation, said Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
“We live in an increasingly connected world, yet as consumers we are living ever further away from the lands that sustain us. Addressing land degradation location by location is insufficient when consumption in one part of the world influences the land and people in another.”
For consumers, companies and governments across the world, shifting to more sustainable diets – essentially, more plants and less animal protein from unsustainable sources – and reducing food wastage are crucial elements in influencing the global economy to keep remaining ecosystems intact.
We live in an increasingly connected world, yet as consumers we are living ever further away from the lands that sustain us. Addressing land degradation location by location is insufficient when consumption in one part of the world influences the land and people in another.
Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
Change from the ground up
Will these findings be surprising to those already working in the field of land degradation and restoration?
Probably not, says Manuel Guariguata, principal scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). But, he believes, the clear linkages that the report makes to human wellbeing, ecosystem services and the value of natural capital for GDP are valuable. “It’s something that’s been communicated a lot, but it hasn’t really penetrated national accounting systems yet.”
It’s also crucial that any new moves to overcome degradation integrate both top-down and bottom-up approaches:
“The local component is just as important as the actions taken by national governments. One way is for governments to promote cross-sectoral dialogue during land-use planning for conservation as well as restoration, while devising restorative approaches that benefit both the environment and the people,” he says.
“Restoration of any degraded terrestrial ecosystem starts on the ground.”
A wake-up call
The authors hope the report will help policymakers, producers and consumers across the globe to make more sustainable choices.
“Unsustainable land use is scarring the Earth for generations. It is costing us billions, impacting human health and contributing to climate change,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of UN Environment.
“This report… is a comprehensive effort to build credible scientific evidence so we can make much better decisions about land – for our people and our planet.”
“It’s a wake-up call for us all,” Barbut said.
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