Up to two fifths of the planet’s land is of poor quality, affecting 50 per cent of humanity and reducing domestic productivity, the United Nations has warned.
A report into land resources across the globe concluded that restoration is vital in combating hunger and climate change.
“Conserving, restoring and using our land resources sustainably is a global imperative, one that requires action on a crisis footing … business as usual is not a viable pathway for our continued survival and prosperity,” said executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Ibrahim Thiaw.
Released before the UNCCD’s Cop15 in Ivory Coast next month, the Global Land Outlook 2 report highlights the worldwide “imperative” of using land sustainability to ward off humanitarian crises while increasing economic output.
“Investing in large-scale land restoration is a powerful, cost-effective tool to combat desertification, soil erosion and loss of agricultural production. As a finite resource and our most valuable natural asset, we cannot afford to continue taking land for granted,” Mr Thiaw said.
Land degradation is described as the persistent or long-term loss of natural habitats including forests, grasslands and savannahs, and is linked to rising poverty, hunger and environmental pollution.
About half the world’s annual economic output – $US 44 trillion – is being challenged by the loss of “finite natural capital”, the UNCCD suggests.
Conversely, the report says the economic returns of reducing degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss could be as high as $140trn a year.
“Every single dollar invested in land restoration generates $7 to $30 in income,” said Mr Thiaw at a round-table discussion on the new report.
Not only is it “doable”, he said, but “desirable”.
“The good news is that when you restore land, you restore economy, you build resilient societies and you fight many of the other sustainable development goals.”
Humans have already transformed 70 per cent of the Earth’s land from its natural state, with up to an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s total land area degraded, contributing to environmental disasters and global warming.
Mr Thiaw said many of the climate change goals set out in the Paris Agreement could be reached by focusing on the restoration of land and that a “business as usual” approach was no longer tenable.
“Modern agriculture has altered the face of the planet more than any other human activity. We need to urgently rethink our global food systems, which are responsible for 80 per cent of deforestation, 70 per cent of freshwater use and the single greatest cause of terrestrial biodiversity loss,” he said.
Agriculture is the “most important driver” of land degradation and biodiversity loss, he said, and he stressed the need for governments to remove “harmful subsidy” policies.
An annual $700 billion is spent by governments worldwide on subsidising the fossil fuel and agricultural industries.
Only 1 per cent of farms control more than 70 per cent of the world’s agricultural land and more than 70 per cent of tropical forest was cleared for agriculture between 2013 and 2019 in breach of national laws and regulations.
The UNCCD is calling for the restoration of 5 billion hectares (50 million square km) by 2050 using measures such as agroforestry, grazing management and assisted natural regeneration, but current international pledges would cover only 1 billion hectares.
Large-scale restoration of land would increase crop yields, improve the water-holding capacity of soil and reduce carbon emissions.
The UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment said the largely desert country was prone to land degradation, making it all the more vital to find ways to preserve existing ecosystems.
Speaking at its launch, Mariam Al Mheiri lauded the report for presenting science and nature-based solutions to climate change and reiterated the UAE’s aim to plant 100 million mangroves by 2030.
The report projects that failure to to reverse degradation could lead to the further deterioration of land the size of South America by 2050 – and an additional 69 gigatonnes of carbon emissions.
The results, it says, would be “a persistent, long-term decline in vegetative productivity”, with Sub-Saharan Africa worst affected. East Africa is currently facing an acute hunger crisis with millions of people facing famine.