The way land resources—soil, water and biodiversity—are currently mismanaged and misused threatens the health and continued survival of many species on Earth, including our own, warns a stark new report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
It lends new urgency to the expansion of the global restoration economy, first documented exactly 20 years ago in the 2002 book, The Restoration Economy, and recently updated in the 2020 book, RECONOMICS: The Path To Resilient Prosperity.
The UNCCD report also points decision makers to hundreds of practical ways to effect local, national and regional land and ecosystem restoration.
“Restoring long term health and productivity in food landscapes is a top priority to ensure future sustainability. Much as an investor uses financial capital to generate profits, regenerating a forest or improving soil health provides returns in the form of a future supply of timber or food,” said Louise Baker, Director, Global Mechanism, UNCCD.
UNCCD’s evidence-based flagship Global Land Outlook 2 (GLO2) report, five years in development with 21 partner organizations, and with over 1,000 references, is the most comprehensive consolidation of information on the topic ever assembled.
It offers an overview of unprecedented breadth and projects the planetary consequences of three scenarios through 2050: business as usual, restoration of 50 million square km of land, and restoration measures augmented by the conservation of natural areas important for specific ecosystem functions.
“The second edition of the Global Land Outlook is a must-read for the biodiversity community. 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 GLO2 shows pathways, enablers and knowledge that we should apply to effectively implement the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework,” Elizabeth Mrema, Executive Secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
It also assesses the potential contributions of land restoration investments to climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation, poverty reduction, human health and other key sustainable development goals.
Warns the report: “At no other point in modern history has humanity faced such an array of familiar and unfamiliar risks and hazards, interacting in a hyper-connected and rapidly changing world. We cannot afford to underestimate the scale and impact of these existential threats.”
“Conserving, restoring, and using our land resources sustainably is a global imperative, one that requires action on a crisis footing…Business as usual is not a viable pathway for our continued survival and prosperity,” it continues.
GLO2 offers hundreds of examples from around the world that demonstrate the potential of land restoration. It is being released before the UNCCD’s 15th session of the Conference of Parties to be held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (COP15, May 9-20, 2022).
Says Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD: “Modern agriculture has altered the face of the planet more than any other human activity. We need to urgently rethink our global food systems, which are responsible for 80% of deforestation, 70% of freshwater use, and the single greatest cause of terrestrial biodiversity loss.”
“Investing in large-scale land restoration is a powerful, cost-effective tool to combat desertification, soil erosion, and loss of agricultural production. As a finite resource and our most valuable natural asset, we cannot afford to continue taking land for granted,” he added.
The report predicts the outcomes by 2050 and risks involved under three scenarios:
Baseline: Business as usual, continuing current trends in land and natural resource degradation, while demands for food, feed, fiber, and bioenergy continue to rise. Land management practices and climate change continue to cause widespread soil erosion, declining fertility and growth in yields, and the further loss of natural areas due to expanding agriculture.
- 16 million square kilometers show continued land degradation (the size of South America);
- A persistent, long-term decline in vegetative productivity is observed for 12-14% of agricultural, pasture and grazing land, and natural areas – with sub-Saharan Africa worst affected; and
- An additional 69 gigatons of carbon is emitted from 2015 to 2050 due to land use change and soil degradation This represents 17% of current annual greenhouse gas emissions: soil organic carbon (32 gigatons), vegetation (27 gigatons), peatland degradation/conversion (10 gigatons).
Restoration: Assumes the restoration of around 5 billion hectares (50 million square kilometers or 35% of the global land area) using measures such as agroforestry, grazing management, and assisted natural regeneration. (Current international pledges: 10 million square kilometers).
- Crop yields increase by 5-10% in most developing countries compared to the baseline. Improved soil health leads to higher crop yields, with the largest gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, and subSaharan Africa, limiting food price increases;
- Soil water holding capacity would increase by 4% in rainfed croplands;
- Carbon stocks rise by a net 17 gigatons between 2015 and 2050 due to gains in soil carbon and reduced emission; and
- Biodiversity continues to decline, but not as quickly, with 11% of biodiversity loss averted.
Restoration and Protection: This scenario includes the restoration measures, augmented with protection measures of areas important for biodiversity, water regulation, conservation of soil and carbon stocks, and provision of critical ecosystem functions.
- An additional 4 million square kilometers of natural areas (the size of India and Pakistan); largest gains expected in South and Southeast Asia and Latin America. Protections would prevent land degradation by logging, burning, draining, or conversion;
- About a third of the biodiversity loss projected in the baseline would be prevented; and
- An additional 83 gigatons of carbon are stored compared to the baseline. Avoided emission and increased carbon storage would be equivalent to more than seven years of total current global emissions.
“Land is the operative link between biodiversity loss and climate change, and therefore must be the primary focus of any meaningful intervention to tackle these intertwined crises. Restoring degraded land and soil provides fertile ground on which to take immediate and concerted action,” said Andrea Meza Murillo, Deputy Executive Secretary, UNCCD.
Other key points in the report include:
- $US 44 trillion – roughly half the world’s annual economic output – is being put at risk by the loss of finite natural capital and nature’s services, which underpin human and environmental health by regulating climate, water, disease, pests, waste and air pollution, while providing numerous other benefits such as recreation and cultural benefits;
- The economic returns of restoring land and reducing degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss could be as high as $US 125-140 trillion every year – up to 50% more than the $93 trillion global GDP in 2021;
- Repurposing in the next decade just $US 1.6 trillion of the annual $700 billion in perverse subsidies given to the fossil fuel and agricultural industries would enable governments to meet current pledges to restore by 2030 some 1 billion degraded hectares – an area the size of the USA or China – including 250 million hectares of farmland;
- Restoring land, soils, forests and other ecosystems would contribute more than one-third of the cost-effective climate change mitigation needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C while supporting biodiversity conservation, poverty reduction, human health and other key sustainable development goals;
- Many traditional and modern regenerative food production practices can enable agriculture to pivot from being the primary cause of degradation to the principal catalyst for land and soil restoration;
- Poor rural communities, smallholder farmers, women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and other at-risk groups are disproportionately affected by desertification, land degradation, and drought. At the same time, traditional and local knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, proven land stewards, represent a vast store of human and social capital that must be respected and can be used to protect and restore natural capital;
- Immediate financial support is needed to fund conservation and restoration in those developing countries with a greater share of the global distribution of intact, biodiverse, and carbon-rich ecosystems;
- Restoration projects and programs tend to have long-term multiplier effects that strengthen rural economies and contribute to wider regional development. They generate jobs that cannot be outsourced, and investments stimulate demand that benefits local economies and communities;
- Bringing together national action plans currently siloed under the UNCCD, Convention on Biological Diversity, and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change represents an immediate opportunity to align targets and commitments to implement land restoration, realize multiple benefits, and maximize returns on investment;
- Land and resource rights, secured through enforceable laws and trusted institutions, can transform underperforming land assets into sustainable development opportunities, helping maintain equitable and cohesive societies;
- Inclusive and responsible land governance, including tenure security, is an effective way to balance trade-offs and harness synergies that optimize restoration outcomes;
- Grasslands and savannas are productive, biodiverse ecosystems that match forests both in their global extent and their need for protection and restoration;
- Equally important are wetlands, which are in long-term decline averaging losses at three times the rate of global forest loss in recent decades. Sustaining their capacity to absorb and store carbon is key to a climate-resilient future;
- Intensive monocultures and the destruction of forests and other ecosystems for food and commodity production generate the bulk of carbon emissions associated with land use change; and
- If current land degradation trends continue, food supply disruptions, forced migration, rapid biodiversity loss and species extinctions will increase, accompanied by a higher risk of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, declining human health, and land resource conflicts.
GLO2 offers hundreds of good practice snapshots from around the world that illustrate context-specific measures to combat environmental degradation, restore land health, and improve living conditions.
Many regenerative agriculture practices have the potential to increase crop yields and improve their nutritional quality while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, it says.
“Indigenous Peoples and local communities are proven land stewards. The recognition of their rights and their involvement in the long-term management of their lands and of protected areas will be vital to success,” said Miriam Medel, Chief, External Relations, Policy and Advocacy, UNCCD.
Examples include rewilding—reducing the human footprint to allow natural ecological processes to re-establish themselves—in the Greater Côa Valley in northern Portugal and the Iberá wetlands in Argentina; drought preparedness and risk reduction through national programs in Mexico, the USA, and Brazil; sand and dust storm source mitigation in Iraq, China, and Kuwait; and gender-responsive land restoration in Mali, Nicaragua, and Jordan. There are also cases of integrated flood and drought strategies as well as forest landscape restoration using high-value crops.
Good practices can involve terrace and contour farming, conserving and restoring watersheds, and rainwater harvesting and storage. In addition to their economic benefits, these measures improve water retention and availability, prevent soil erosion and landslides, reduce flood risk, sequester carbon, and protect biodiversity habitat.
Africa’s Great Green Wall, meanwhile, which aims to restore the continent’s degraded landscapes, exemplifies “a regional restoration initiative that embraces an integrated approach with the promise of transforming the lives of millions of people,” says the report.
“The case studies from around the world showcased in GLO2 make clear that land restoration can be implemented in almost all settings and at many spatial scales, suggesting that every country can design and implement a tailored land restoration agenda to meet their development needs,” explains Thiaw.
Many of the cases, he adds, underscore the value of education, training, and capacity building, not just for local communities, but also for government officials, land managers, and development planners. Linking local engagement to national policies and budgets will help ensure a responsive and well-aligned restoration agenda that delivers tangible outcomes for people, nature, and the climate.
Preventing, halting, and reversing the degradation of ecosystems worldwide is the focus of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), which calls for a broad and balanced response, addressing all ecosystems and their connectivity to reestablish a healthy landscape mosaic. These efforts are closely aligned with SDG target 15.3, which calls on countries to strive to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) by 2030.
“Hope remains as the decade of restoration has begun,” continued Thiaw. “Now is the time to harness political will, innovation, and collective action to restore our land and soil for short-term recovery and long-term regeneration to ensure a more stable and resilient future.”
By the numbers, GLO2:
- 50%: Proportion of humanity affected by land degradation;
- $US 7-30: benefits returned for every dollar invested in restoring degraded land;
- Four: planetary boundaries (used to define a ‘safe operating space for humanity’) already exceeded: climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, and geochemical cycles, breaches directly linked to human-induced desertification, land degradation, and drought;
- 40%+: global land area occupied by agriculture;
- 15%: proportion of the $US 700 billion paid out in commercial subsidies each year that positively impact natural capital, biodiversity, long-term job stability, or livelihoods;
- 70%+: Tropical forest cleared for agriculture between 2013 and 2019 in violation of national laws or regulations;
- 1%: Farms that control more than 70% of the world’s agricultural land;
- 80%: Farms smaller than two hectares, representing 12% of total farmland;
- 50%: Reduction of degraded land by 2040 pledged by G20 leaders in November 2020;
- 115+: countries that had made quantitative, area-based commitments by the end of 2021, collectively a pledge to restore 1 billion hectares of farms, forests, and pastures;
- 100+: Countries with plans for Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) by 2030: ‘frameworks for action’ by local and national authorities, civil society, and the private sector;
- 130: Countries that reaffirmed in the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use (Nov. 2021) their respective individual and collective commitments under the three Rio Conventions – on Desertification (UNCCD), Biological Diversity (CBD), and Climate Change (UNFCCC), supported by unprecedented corporate and donor pledges. It also includes commitments to facilitate trade and development policies that avoid deforestation and land degradation, especially regarding internationally-traded agricultural commodities, such as beef, soy, palm oil, and timber.
Land degradation: The persistent or long-term loss of land-based natural capital. It gives rise to poverty, hunger, and environmental pollution, while making communities more vulnerable to disease and disasters like drought, floods, or wildfires. This is especially true in the drylands that cover more than 45% of the Earth’s land surface, home to one in three people.
Land restoration: A continuum of sustainable land and water management practices that can be applied to conserve or ‘rewild’ natural areas, ‘up-scale’ nature-positive food production in rural landscapes, and ‘green’ urban areas, infrastructure, and supply chains.
Regenerative land use practices employed to boost soil health or recharge groundwater also enhance our ability to cope with drought, floods, wildfires, and sand and dust storms.
“…land restoration and other nature-based solutions (must) be undertaken to prevent further environmental decline and ensure a healthy and prosperous future. We can reduce the risk of zoonotic disease transmission, increase food and water security, and improve human health and livelihoods by managing, expanding, and connecting protected and natural areas, improving soil, crop, and livestock health in food systems, and creating green and blue spaces in and around cities,” said Barron Orr, Lead Scientist, UNCCD.
GLO2: Baseline Scenario projections
- 16 million square kilometers show continued land degradation (the size of South America);
- A persistent, long-term decline in vegetative productivity is observed for 12-14% of agricultural, pasture and grazing land, and natural areas – with sub-Saharan Africa worst affected;
- An additional 69 gigatons of carbon is emitted from 2015 to 2050 due to land use change and soil degradation This represents 17% of current annual greenhouse gas emissions: soil organic carbon (32 gigatons), vegetation (27 gigatons), peatland degradation/conversion (10 gigatons);
- A slowing in the growth of agricultural yields While agricultural yields are still projected to rise in all regions, land degradation will curb increases, especially in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. The loss of soil organic carbon and the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients, such as phosphorus or nitrogen, will be primarily responsible for this slowing, while the associated risks of drought and water scarcity are expected to increase;
- The demand for food, expected to rise by 45% between 2015 and 2050, will have to be met by further intensification and expansion of agricultural land, resulting in the further loss of 3 million square kilometers of natural areas (the size of India), mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America; and
- Other contemporary scenario analyses explicitly consider factors such as environmental governance, land distribution, and access to resources.
Restoration Scenario projections
The restoration scenario assumes that land restoration is done on a massive scale – across a potential 50 million square kilometers (5 billion hectares) with measures such as:
- Conservation agriculture (low- or no-till farming);
- Agroforestry and silvopasture (combining trees with crops, livestock, or both);
- Improved grazing management and grassland rehabilitation;
- Forest plantations;
- Assisted natural regeneration; and
- Cross-slope barriers to prevent soil erosion.
The restoration scenario envisions these measures applied to roughly 16 million square kilometers of cropland, 22 million of grazing land, and 14 million of natural areas. Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are estimated to have the largest areas with the potential for land restoration.
Compared to the baseline scenario, restoration means by 2050:
- Crop yields increase by 5-10% in most developing countries compared to the baseline Improved soil health leads to higher crop yields, with the largest gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, and subSaharan Africa, limiting food price increases;
- Soil water holding capacity would increase by 4% in rainfed croplands;
- Carbon stocks rise by a net 17 gigatonnes between 2015 and 2050 due to gains in soil carbon and reduced emissions. This is the balance of a net increase in soil organic carbon, increased carbon in agroforestry, and a continued loss of vegetation carbon due to land conversion. It does not account for the potential carbon storage gains above ground from forest restoration. Soil carbon stocks would be 55 gigatonnes larger in 2050 compared to the baseline, with the largest gains in Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Latin America, while the biggest losses would be avoided in sub-Saharan Africa;
- Slowed biodiversity decline and loss of natural areas. Globally, the extent of natural areas continues to decline due to the expansion of agricultural and urban areas, except in Latin America where natural areas are projected to increase by 3%. Biodiversity would continue to decline, but not as quickly, with 11% of biodiversity loss averted.
“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 center of our planning is needed, prioritizing job creation and building vital skill sets while giving voice to women and youth who have been traditionally marginalized from decision making,” said Nichole Barger, report steering committee member, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, USA.
Restoration and Protection Scenario projections
This scenario includes the restoration measures, augmented with protection measures expanded to cover close to half of the Earth’s land surface by 2050 – a threefold increase on the current coverage. These protected areas are important for biodiversity, water regulation, conservation of soil and carbon stocks, and provision of critical ecosystem functions.
However, significantly increasing the extent of protected land would limit the expansion of agriculture. Under this constraint, current yields would have to be 9% higher by 2050 than in the baseline scenario to meet expected demand. Nonetheless, food prices are projected to increase, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, where a scarcity of agricultural land is already impacting food security.
Under this scenario, most of the new protected areas would have to be in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. When compared to the baseline, the restoration and protection scenario means by 2050:
- An additional 4 million square kilometers of natural areas (the size of India and Pakistan). With the largest gains expected in South and Southeast Asia and Latin America, protected areas would prevent land degradation by logging, burning, draining, or conversion;
- While biodiversity would continue to decline, about a third of the loss projected in the baseline would be prevented under restoration and protection measures; and
- An additional 83 gigatons are stored compared to the baseline. Avoided emission and increased carbon storage would be equivalent to more than seven years of total current global emissions.
“By designing an innovative, customized land restoration agenda that suits their needs, capacities, and circumstances, countries and communities can recover lost natural resources and better prepare for climate change and other looming threats,” said Johns Muleso Kharika, Chief, Science, Technology and Innovation, UNCCD.