Human activity has already degraded more than three-quarters of global lands, according to a 2018 assessment on land degradation and restoration by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and the resulting loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity costs more than 10% of GDP. Another projection has land degradation costing a towering US$23 trillion by 2050. Asia and Africa shoulder the highest burden, losing growth and development opportunities.
The repercussions of land degradation go beyond economics. Not least, they can become a security issue, as depleted harvests and loss of agricultural livelihoods can lead to migration and unrest. In the Middle East and the Sahel region of Africa, land degradation has played a key role in sparking armed conflict in the past decade.
And the fate of land is closely bound up with that of biodiversity and the climate. For example, degraded lands sequester less carbon, while climate change, in turn, exacerbates problems like soil erosion and forest fires. Rapid expansion of agriculture is often happening at the expense of some of the most biodiverse forest landscapes, while intensive and inappropriate use of agrochemicals can ruin soil productivity, kill pollinators and choke aquatic life.
A way forward
The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration also provided evidence that land degradation is often reversible, and a transition to sustainable land management is possible. But it noted that for this to happen requires a wholesale structural change in the way we think about land, as well as in land governance, trade, consumption and production.
The new Nature Sustainability article, “How to halt the global decline of lands”, offers 10 strategic ways to overcome the systemic barriers that currently block this kind of structural change.
The official track
Two systemic barriers the authors identify are the lack of any standardized way to measure land degradation, and of official competencies and motivation to tackle the problem. Few countries have a specific competent body to enforce land protection, and institutional set-ups tend to be ill-suited to tackle the interacting drivers of land degradation.
Creating a network of institutions at different scales to set standards, routinely collect and evaluate information about the local and national status of land is a prerequisite for developing benchmarks and standards for sustainable land use, they argue.
Clear, quantifiable and legally binding targets for halting and reversing land degradation are also needed to assess progress and increase ambition. Furthermore, the full costs of land degradation should be factored into development decisions that impact land – undermining the common excuse that protecting land is simply “too expensive”. Where development of land is unavoidable, mechanisms like offsetting – through land protection and restoration elsewhere – could be written into law.
Consumption, production and trade
Land degradation is the result, ultimately, of failures in production-consumption systems. The globalized economy demands fresh raw materials to be extracted, industrially processed, transported and consumed, all of which have land impacts. The distances involved, and the complexity of supply chains, can make the land impacts all but invisible to consumers, and even to actors along the supply chain. Meanwhile, the way profits are distributed often means smaller agricultural producers cannot afford to switch to more sustainable practices.
The article suggests trying to reduce demand for land-based products to what can be sustainably met; for example by moving to more plant-based diets, investing in circular economy, instilling respect and care for land, and even re-evaluating subsidies that stimulate population growth. Redistributing the costs of land degradation through implementing the polluter pays principle, making sure environmental costs are reflected in the final costs of goods and services is also key.
Recognizing land as a global good – and land degradation as a problem with shared, even global, consequences – can inform new management approaches. Making supply chains more transparent is an essential support.
Land degradation happens locally, even when it is driven by global processes. But with many competing priorities, local institutions often lack the motivation to act. Rewarding people who invest in sustainable land management could provide a strong incentive and support local institutions with land restoration. Another solution to improve local action would be to get rid of the perverse incentives that result in land degradation, like legislation that awards land property rights if the vegetation is cleared.
The article also recognizes indigenous peoples as crucial local stakeholders in sustainable land management; their connection with the land represents a form of sustainable land stewardship and they have a lot of experience, and valid knowledge, to share.
Finally, the article calls for strengthening judicial institutions to make it easier, and safer, for citizens to hold companies and governments to account for land degradation and other environmental harm. Two legal innovations to help this are recognizing the rights of future generations and of the intrinsic right of nature to exist.
Land degradation is a growing crisis. It is not treated with the urgency it deserves, partly because it is so pervasive and yet relatively invisible, also because political and economic processes, like human brains, generally respond more readily to short-term problems.
All of the 10 strategies the article suggests are big asks, there’s no question. But we cannot afford to wait. As we enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, let’s hope humanity can rise to the challenge.