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Land degradation worsening climate change and undermining well-being of billions

A new assessment sets out the best-available evidence for policymakers to make better-informed decisions to combat land degradation, drawing on more than 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources.

Published on 26 March 2018

Deforestation caused by agricultural expansion in Madagascar Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/

According to a new report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (IPBES), the principle global driver of land degradation is the expansion and unsustainable management of agriculture, fuelled by unprecedented levels of consumption in an increasingly globalized economy. This causes significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as food security, water purification and the provision of energy.

“This landmark report reveals that land degradation, in all its different forms now undermines the wellbeing of almost half the population of the planet,” says Toby Gardner, senior research fellow and one of the coordinating lead authors of the IPBES assessment. “The main culprit is the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies.”

SEI’s Toby Gardner in dialogue with representatives of Member States at the 6th session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia

Land degradation manifests itself in many ways: land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, reduction of rangelands and fresh water, and deforestation. The consequences cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world’s annual gross product in 2010, through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

A climate change catalyst

The IPBES report finds that land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another major driver of the changing climate has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2.

Given the importance of soil’s carbon absorption and storage functions, the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold targeted in the Paris Agreement on climate change, increase food and water security, and contribute to the avoidance of conflict and migration.

Restoring the land

The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem. Proven approaches to halting and reversing land degradation include:

  • Green infrastructure development, reducing soil loss, remediation of contaminated land, and conservation agriculture.
  • Coordinating policy agendas to encourage sustainable production and consumption.
  • Eliminating perverse incentives that promote degradation – subsidies that reward overproduction, for example – and devising positive incentives that reward the adoption of sustainable land management practices.
  • Comprehensive, open-access information on the impacts of traded commodities.

“This is a wake-up call. The time for procrastination is over. The report, endorsed by the 129 State Members of IPBES, does not pull any punches,” says Gardner. “It calls directly for major, transformative changes in consumption patterns, demographic growth, technology and business models to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation and achieve food, energy, water and livelihood security for all, while mitigating and adapting to climate change and halting biodiversity loss.”

Key facts and figures

  1. Land degradation through human activities is undermining the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people.
  2. Land degradation through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction.
  3. Less than one quarter of the Earth’s land surface remains free from substantial human impacts. By 2050 it is estimated that this will drop to less than 10%.
  4. Land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, and climate change is foreseen as a leading driver of biodiversity loss.
  5. By 2050, land degradation and climate change will reduce crop yields by an average of 10% globally, and up to 50% in certain regions.
  6. Land degradation generally increases the number of people exposed to hazardous air, water and land pollution, particularly in developing countries.
  7. The benefits of land restoration are 10 times higher than the costs (estimated across nine different biomes).

Land degradation is worsening #ClimateChange and undermining the well-being of billions. #IPBES6

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IPBES was established in April 2012, as an independent intergovernmental body open to all UN member states. Its aim is “strengthening the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long term human wellbeing and sustainable development”. IPBES has 129 State Members, who approved the assessment on land degradation at the 6th session of the IPBES plenary in Medellín, Colombia.

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