Poor land management and natural resource exploitation threatens half of global GDP, UN warns
A major new report from the UN has revealed that 40% of the world’s land is degraded and warned that, without major restoration and preservation efforts, there will be grave outcomes for society, nature and climate.
Published on Wednesday (27 April), the UN’s second Global Land Outlook assesses land-use trends across the world, tracks land degradation and outlines future scenarios in which opportunities to protect and restore land are taken. Importantly, it emphasizes how land degradation contributes to food insecurity, mass migration, economic losses, biodiversity loss and the global temperature increase.
The headline finding is that around 40% of land globally is already degraded. Degradation to date has largely been driven by sectors linked to deforestation, such as forestry and intensive agriculture. Agriculture alone now occupies 40% of global land. This has already resulted in negative impacts for half of the global population, predominantly in the Global South.
Unless action is taken to protect and restore land at scale, the report warns, half of global GDP – $44trn – will be at risk by 2050. In a business-as-usual scenario, at least 12% of the world’s agricultural and pasture land will enter a potentially irreversible decline in productivity, risking food security and livelihoods. This further degradation will have knock-on impacts in regards to biodiversity loss and the climate crisis. On the latter, an additional 69 billion tonnes of CO2e will be generated by land-use by 2050 in this scenario.
While the report’s warnings are stark, it also emphasizes how it is not too late to restore and protect land at scale, creating interlinked benefits for nature, people, climate and the economy.
The UN’s ‘restoration’ scenario assumes the restoration of 50 million square kilometres of land – 35% of the global total – by 2050. In this scenario, a 5-10% increase in crop yields would likely happen in most developing countries. 11% of biodiversity loss forecast under the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario would be prevented. Additionally, 17 billion tonnes of carbon would be sequestered in soil, with global soils acting as a net carbon sink.
It bears noting that current international and national land restoration commitments cover only 10 million square kilometres. In other words, the ‘restoration’ scenario is unlikely to happen unless strong foundations for its delivery are laid in the near future. The UN is urging nations to increase their ambitions and actions ahead of the finalization of the post-2020 treaty on biodiversity. Meetings are scheduled for October in Kunming, China, to finalise the treaty, following a string of delays.
The report also offers a scenario that goes futher than ‘restoration’, and also includes international protection measures for areas that play a key role in global carbon and water systems and/or play host to rich biodiversity. In this scenario, 33% of the biodiversity loss predicted under the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario is prevented. On the climate front, the carbon sequestration potential of soil would increase by 83 gigatonnes. This is equivalent to one-third of the climate change mitigation needed to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5C.
The report estimates that delivering the ‘restoration and protection’ scenario will cost $1.6trn each year. It points out that, at present, national governments are collectively subsidising intensive agriculture and fossil fuels to the tune of $7trn per year, meaning that it would be possible to raise the funding needed by redirecting a minority of these subsidies.
Also highlighted are the economic risks of inaction and the benefits of action. On the latter, the report touts potential economic returns of up to $120-145trn each year. It states that, for each dollar invested in restoring degraded land, returns will be between $7 and $30.
Commenting on the report’s findings, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s executive secretary Elizabeth Mrema said: “The future of biodiversity is precarious. We have already degraded nearly 40 % and altered 70 % of the land. We cannot afford to have another ‘lost decade’ for nature and need to act now for a future of life in harmony with nature. The Global Land Outlook 2 shows pathways, enablers and knowledge that we should apply to effectively implement the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.”
Report steering committee member Nichole Barger added: “As a global community, we can no longer rely on incremental reforms within traditional planning and development frameworks to address the profound development and sustainability challenges we are facing in coming decades.
“A rapid transformation in land-use and management practices that place people and nature at the centre of our planning is needed, prioritising job creation and building vital skill sets while giving voice to women and youth who have been traditionally marginalised from decision-making.”
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