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A bioeconomy perspective on land restoration offers a triple win for biodiversity, climate and development

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A bioeconomy perspective on land restoration offers a triple win for biodiversity, climate and development

This year’s World Environment Day focuses on the critical need for land restoration and the sustainable management of land, soils and biomass. Integrative and regenerative use of land, soils and biomass are pillars of a sustainable bioeconomy, which can deliver more than just healthier lands – it offers a potential “triple win” for climate, biodiversity and sustainable development.

Francis X. Johnson / Published on 5 June 2024

Land degradation and desertification form a triple crisis together with biodiversity loss and climate change. These three major environment and development challenges gave rise to the three Rio Conventions in 1992: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

While the CBD and UNFCCC have become more and more prominent over the past decades, the UNCCD was often overlooked – even sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s convention” early on, as desertification and land use issues affected “only Africa” and therefore were “not of global significance”. This misguided view gave way to the reality of the global impact of land degradation.

An estimated 2 billion hectares of the world’s land have been degraded by human use, an amount that is greater than total agricultural cropland in 2022. More than 100 million hectares were degraded annually from 2015 to 2019, more than twice the size of Mexico, according to the UNCCD Secretariat. The goal of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) aims to reverse that trend, with about 80 countries having established – and reported on – voluntary targets for LDN.

The UNCCD Global Land Outlook noted the role of land as the operative link between biodiversity and climate, but also the need for human, social and financial capital to be deployed in synergy with natural and land-based capital. As detailed in a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Assessment report, land degradation often presents a triple loss – for climate, biodiversity and multiple sustainable development goals. However, land restoration alone is insufficient to address these losses, due not only to the scale of the problem but also the dynamic and negative interactions between land degradation, climate change and the affected people. As discussed in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land (IPCC-SRCCL), land degradation reduces the adaptive capacity of affected populations and is also a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, while climate change in turn further accelerates the process of land degradation.

Land degradation also leads to the loss of wild species: The IPBES Assessment report on the sustainable use of wild species showed that 70% of the world’s poor depended on wild species on plants and animals for their well-being. Unless land restoration is accompanied by measures to expand livelihoods and reduce inequalities in resource use, the cycle of deepening poverty and environmental degradation tends to continue, especially in rural areas and semi-arid regions.

Missing land in the climate equation

Despite the importance of land to greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration, the land sectors have not been much in focus at UNFCCC negotiations in recent years; the emphasis has been on the energy sector, and especially on phasing out fossil fuels in favour of renewables. However, as shown in the IPCC Synthesis report (IPCC-SYR) released last year, deep emissions reductions and system transformation are needed across all sectors.

Furthermore, unlike higher income regions, land use is a significant net source of greenhouse gas emissions in lower income regions and is greater than those of the energy sector in many countries. At the same time, as the IPCC Assessment showed, a significant amount of land, on the order of hundreds of millions of hectares, will likely be needed for carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere under most scenarios, especially to compensate for sectors where greenhouse gas emissions cannot be eliminated.

As noted in the State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report, “novel” methods of carbon dioxide removal such as biochar or Direct Air Carbon Capture, which are more costly and require less land, amount to less than 1% of current efforts. Meanwhile, The Land Gap Report found that the total amount of land pledged under the UNFCCC for land-based mitigation was almost one billion hectares.

Economizing land use in a new way

The question then becomes how to turn land use from a problem into a solution, considering that the amount of degraded land is twice as much as the current pledges for land-based mitigation. The best solution would be to decrease demand for land by reducing demand for lower productivity uses and products, and thereby free up land and resources for other uses.

Among the best places to start is the demand for animal feed, which is highly land-intensive and unproductive, accounting for an estimated 56% of all biomass extracted, compared to 15% for plant-based food and just 2% for liquid biofuels. Another category of low productivity and land-intensive biomass use is wood as a traditional fuel, which accounts for about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions a year.

However, rapidly reducing demand for land and biomass could be unfair in some regions in a world of inequality, growing population and increasing material demands. A significant increase in the productivity of land, biomass and soils is therefore critical. At the same time, the demand for bio-based products and services, including ecosystem services, needs to increase to replace non-renewable resources used for energy, food and materials.

A modern and sustainable bioeconomy provides a multidimensional solution to address the “poly-crisis” of biodiversity, climate and land degradation. A sustainable bioeconomy means rejecting high-input fossil-based systems, as well as low productivity or subsistence systems. It means adopting instead a knowledge-based system that can meet future biological resource or bio-resource demand in a resource-efficient, climate-smart and sustainable manner. It is a long-term transformation that requires systems that use biodiversity sustainably, reverse processes of land and soil degradation, and restore or enhance the carbon capacity of land, soils and biomass.

Carbon removal is thus also linked to bioeconomy advancement. Adopting this thinking will be especially important for large countries such as China, which have a significant share of greenhouse gas emissions that need to be offset.

Working with bioeconomy

The SEI initiative on Governing Bioeconomy Pathways has worked with stakeholders and decision-makers across different world regions to discuss and assess bioeconomy visions and pathways. In Latin America, SEI has worked with stakeholders at national and subnational levels to evaluate methods to promote “agrobiodiversity” by increasing the use, knowledge and implementation of “bio-inputs” and especially biological control for pests. In eastern Africa, SEI played a key role in the development of the bioeconomy strategy for the region, the first truly regional bioeconomy strategy outside of the EU. In southeast Asia, SEI brought together international and domestic stakeholders to discuss community-based bioeconomy initiatives under way in Thailand and how these might be pursued elsewhere in the region.

These success stories present possibilities for a future that creates a triple win for biodiversity, climate and land, but not all bioeconomy approaches – nor all individual land-based technologies and measures  – can be expected to succeed on all three fronts. And yet there are many options that have multiple potential co-benefits and synergies, as detailed in the IPCC-SRCCL and synthesized further in the IPCC-SYR. Nor is it realistic to expect some developing countries to accept the high social cost of rapidly adjusting their economies under the strain of climate change and resource degradation.

For such reasons, this year’s Brazilian G20 initiative on bioeconomy, in which SEI participates, is emphasizing not only “Science, Technology and Innovation”,  but also cultural and social dimensions or “sociobioeconomy”. The intermingling of these threads underscores the importance of local anchoring of livelihoods and well-being to sustainable bio-resource use and bioeconomy development. The multidimensional and cross-cutting role of bioeconomy will be on full display at this year’s Global Bioeconomy Summit in Nairobi that will be co-hosted by SEI in October.

The critical role of a modern bioeconomy should come as no surprise to the sustainable development community, given that its work emerged in the 1980s from circular bioeconomy concepts. The cross-cutting lens of bioeconomy can weave together synergistic solutions to biodiversity, climate and land use. Achieved across multiple scales, bioeconomy solutions for the triple threat that we face would be transformational – and inextricably intertwined with land use, something to consider as the UN pushes to restore degraded lands today on World Environment Day and in the decades to come.

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