A boy tilling soil

Tilling soil in Senegal. Land degradation is a prominent problem in Senegal. Source: IFPRI / Milo Mitchell, Flickr.

The old saying, “buy land – they’re not making any more of it,” has implications that deserve some reflection. Land is sometimes viewed from an investment perspective as being fixed and finite, whereas solar energy, water and other “renewable” resources are viewed differently.

Yet when considered over decades and centuries rather than years, land is anything but fixed or static, but is characterised by a variety of biophysical processes and ever more complex linkages to anthropogenic systems and economies that shape land use changes over time. Of special interest from an environment-development perspective are the processes of land degradation, deforestation and desertification observed in many low-income countries.

The goal of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN), which aims for no net land degradation, has been in focus due to the recent 13th Conference of the Parties (COP13) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Ordos, China. During the conference, the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund (LDN Fund) was launched with an initial target of US$300 million, aiming to leverage public money to raise private capital for sustainable land management and landscape restoration activities in support of SDG 15, “Life on Land.” The science-policy basis for Land Degradation Neutrality and related land use issues were also supported through the recent launch of the first Global Land Outlook.

Land degradation is often closely connected to poverty, climate change and vulnerability, particularly in poorer countries. Slash and burn agriculture, excessive use of charcoal and other unsustainable land use practices are contributing to entrenched poverty in rural areas as well as emissions. Whereas the rich world tends to focus on fossil fuels and climate mitigation, land use change is the major source of emissions in most developing countries as well as a major driver of vulnerability to climate change. The number of people living on degraded agricultural land has been decreasing in the rich world in recent years but has been increasing significantly in poorer countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The aim of LDN initiatives is generally to restore degraded land to productive uses while at the same time providing improved livelihoods to those that live off the land.

There can also be a significant energy dimension to land use and land degradation: when viewed over the long-term the ecological health of land in relation to energy use deserves greater attention. As noted in the Global Land Outlook (and the associated working paper on Energy and land use),  renewable energy sources, especially bioenergy, generally require much more land than non-renewable sources. Yet the quantity of land does not tell the whole story and can be a misleading metric. Fossil and nuclear power can render land toxic or unusable for centuries (or millennia, in the case of nuclear accidents). Dedicated biomass systems or landscapes initially require significant land but can provide food, feed and/or renewable materials as well as renewable energy in perpetuity when well-managed.

More importantly, renewable resource regimes that combine sustainable land management with integrated ecological responses accomplish something that non-renewables can never do – they replenish rather than diminish the resource base for future generations. At the same time, renewable does not equal sustainable: high dependence on traditional biomass and subsistence agriculture in developing countries contributes to land degradation that traps rural households in poverty. As with the fossil economy, the “natural economy” must also transition to a circular and renewable economy, including a sustainable bioeconomy that uses bio-based materials, maximizes re-use and recycling and maintains soil health.

A woman tapping on a rubber tree

Agroforestry in Lubuk Beringin village, Jambi province, Indonesia. Source: Tri Saputro / CIFOR, Flickr.

Such an economy will require integrated landscape approaches, such as agroforestry, perennial polyculture and hybrid models of renewable energy and agriculture. A more coherent set of policies, institutions and governance mechanisms will also be needed to integrate across sectors (e.g. agriculture, forestry, energy) and across political levels.

The financial system should not reward investments that discount the long-term ecological health of land resources but should instead promote equitable and productive land use regimes across different uses and sectors. All of this goes to remind us that although we cannot “make more land,” there are nevertheless certain conditions and models of land use management and governance that allow land to “become” a renewable resource by assuring its productivity and stewardship for future generations.

This perspective is based in part on the working paper Energy and Land Use, published by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.