Land is the foundation of our societies. Productive land is a cornerstone to global food security and environmental health, zero hunger, poverty eradication, and energy for all. It underpins the success of the entire 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. And yet this finite resource is under existential threat.
Globally, one fifth of Earth’s land area – more than 2 billion hectares – is degraded, including more than half of all agricultural land. Each year, more than 12 million hectares of land are lost to desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD). Approximately 95% of our calories from food come from soil, yet topsoil erosion has accelerated by tenfold due to human activity. The world loses 24 billion tons of fertile soil annually due to dryland degradation, with significant negative impacts on food production and economic activity.
Land Use, Biodiversity Loss and Climate Change
Land degradation currently undermines the well-being of 3.2 billion people, more than 40% of the entire world population, driving species to extinction and intensifying climate change. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that over 70% of all natural, ice-free land has been transformed by human activity, devastating global biodiversity. IPBES further warns that this could rise to 90% by 2050 if global land use patterns continue unabated. Food, feed, and fibre also contribute significantly to climate change, with around a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture, forestry and other land uses. According to the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land, unsustainable land use and soil management practices to produce these three goods are behind this vast change.
Water Scarcity, Drought, Wildfires and Migration
Climate change further exacerbates, and is worsened by, unsustainable land-use and land-use changes, with many regions becoming drier, suffering more frequent and prolonged droughts. Droughts and climate change are intensifying the incidence of wildfires which now rage for longer and expand farther than ever before, having devastated roughly 30 million acres of land in the global north and south from 2018-2020 alone, causing significant losses in livelihoods, health and biodiversity, destroying ecosystems and billions of animals.
In addition, climate-induced land degradation and water-stress are anticipated to lead to the loss of more arable land in the coming years, plunging millions of farmers into poverty and contributing to forced migration and conflict. If not addressed, by 2025, two-thirds of the world will be living under “water-stressed” conditions – when demand outstrips supply during certain periods – with 1.8 billion people experiencing absolute water scarcity. Similarly, migration is likely to increase as a result of desertification, with estimates that it will be responsible for the displacement of some 135 million people by 2045.
Land Use, Zoonoses and Building Back Better
Furthermore, unsustainable land-use change, including deforestation, is the primary transmission pathway for emerging infectious diseases, and the rate of land conversion is accelerating. COVID-19, much like HIV/AIDS, Zika or Ebola, is amongst the 60% of infectious diseases considered zoonotic, originating from animal populations under severe environmental pressure. The link between land degradation, ecosystem destruction and zoonoses’ emergence is well documented, and was highlighted during the first UN Summit on Biodiversity in September 2020.
As General Assembly resolution 75/218 affirmed, combating desertification, land degradation and drought, and achieving land degradation neutrality, are a pathway to accelerate achieving the Sustainable Development Goals that will contribute to safeguarding livelihoods, preventing and preparing for future pandemics, and building back better from COVID-19. Actions based on the clear understanding of rights, rewards and responsibilities of land management can help address COVID-19’s fallout, by tackling one of the primary environmental drivers of emerging infectious disease outbreaks. At the same time, strengthening the resilience of our food and water systems through sustainable land use can help reduce the socio-economic effects of this pandemic, and any future systemic shocks, on global poverty and food insecurity. For every dollar spent on land restoration – including through low-skilled and labour-intensive shovel-ready projects – at least 9 dollars of economic benefits can be expected. Large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts have the potential to create up to 40 jobs for every 1 million dollars invested.
Taking Stock of Progress Made
Over the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification (2011-2020), the world redoubled efforts to address land issues. One of the most impactful developments during the Decade was the remarkable expansion of the body of scientific knowledge about the drivers, processes and impacts of DLDD. Considerable technical progress was achieved in developing solutions to these challenges. This has included recognizing that nature-based solutions, including reforestation and land restoration to sequester carbon in soil, are essential to achieving the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree target.
Ensuring the food security of our planet’s projected 9.7 billion global population by 2050, while simultaneously implementing the Paris Agreement, will be impossible without tackling land degradation and enacting food system reform. One of the most promising pathways to do so include upscaling Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) initiatives within the framework of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and COVID-19 recoveries; formalizing and respecting land tenure rights for large and small-scale producers, including female farmers, who are responsible for between 60 to 80% of food production in developing countries; combating drought and forest fires, including through reforestation and forest management practices; and supporting the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which will build upon the impacts of the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification.
The inclusion of a specific target under SDG 15 (‘Life on Land’), to achieve land degradation neutrality by 2030, reflects the commitment of the international community to make tangible progress on land restoration and reversing land degradation. Thus far, 123 countries have committed to setting voluntary targets to achieve land degradation neutrality, and many have secured high-level government commitments to achieve LDN. The urgent adoption and implementation of LDN targets by all countries is necessary in order to sustainably secure land’s vital resources for generations to come and accelerate the entire 2030 agenda.
2021 will be a milestone year for the three Rio Conventions on Desertification, Biodiversity and Climate Change (UNCCD, CBD and UNFCCC). For the first time, the Conference of Parties of all three Rio Conventions are scheduled to take place in the same year. 2021 is also an important year for advancing the implementation of the UN Strategic Plan for Forests 2030 during the 16th session of the UN Forum on Forests in April 2021. This presents a clear opportunity to leverage accelerated action on land-based solutions for climate and biodiversity action. Addressing the numerous environmental and socio-economic challenges facing our world will be centered upon future land use decisions.