Land degradation threatens us all. The UN is urging global action

More than 3.2 billion people are at risk from land degradation, which is likely to worsen with climate change, says UN.

India pollution
Agriculture and construction lead to the loss of or reduction in the productivity of land, resulting in land degradation [File: Manish Swarup/AP]

New Delhi, India – More than 3.2 billion people around the world are at risk from land degradation, a trend that may worsen the impacts of climate change and force 700 million people to migrate by 2050, the United Nations has said, calling on governments and the private sector to invest in land restoration.

Representatives from 196 countries gathered in the Indian capital, New Delhi, on Monday for COP14 – the fourteenth session of the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) – to discuss tackling the challenges of desertification and land degradation globally. 

“Twenty-five percent of global land has already degraded and I think it is now time to look to the future and ask where would we be in 2050?” Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the convention told reporters at a news conference in New Delhi.

Stressing that more than half of the world’s land has been transformed to produce food and energy, Thiaw called for investments in land restoration, a labour-intensive process that would also create more jobs in emerging economies.

Land degradation is caused by human activities such as agriculture and construction that lead to the loss of or reduction in the productivity of land, rendering it unfit for any economic use.


Degradation of drylands causes desertification, putting countries such as India – where drylands make up 69 percent of the landmass – at risk. 

“We have to restore the damage done for the last 200 years,” Prakash Javadekar, India’s Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, who is also the COP14 president for the next two years, said.

Javadekar called for global cooperation among nations to make land degradation neutrality – an innovative land management initiative for longterm productivity – a national target.

“If human actions have caused damage, then human actions would undo [the same],” he said. 

Losses to GDP, malnutrition

Across the world, land degradation has threatened agriculture and water availability, and exacerbated climate change and drought. Global population growth has increased the demand for food and energy and inadequate land-use practices across Africa and Asia have rendered millions of hectares unfit for use.

The UN estimates the global economy will lose a whopping $23 trillion by 2050 through land degradation. 

In countries such as India, almost 30 percent of the total landmass has been affected by land degradation and desertification, impacting millions of people in a country where nearly half of the workforce is employed in agriculture. 

Last year, a government-backed study found that the total cost of land degradation in India amounted to roughly 2.5 percent of the country’s economic output in 2014-15. 

“Globally, but especially in emerging countries, land degradation has caused migration and droughts, and has also furthered conflicts,” Emmanuel Seck, a board member of Climate Action Network International and a senior UN consultant, told Al Jazeera.

Seck called for an immediate restoration of land in the global south, by engaging those most affected and necessitating community-centric investments to give land restoration an economic value.

The loss of productive land leads to the loss of fertile soil to grow food, which could affect food supplies and drive up global food prices. 

This, UN officials at COP14 said, could lead to malnutrition in poor countries, where climate change has already gained traction. 

“Just like climate change transitioned from a political to a geopolitical issue, the efforts to restore our degraded lands need a similar transition,” Seck said.

Private sector support needed

In the run-up to COP 14, India’s environment ministry announced its goal of transforming 5 million hectares of degraded land into fertile land by 2030 – a scheme that invites private investment and aims to create jobs. 

Expanding its commitments from the last Conference of Parties held in Ordos, China, in 2017, the UN on Monday urged an investment-driven approach to tackle land degradation.

According to Thiaw, government and private sector investments in land restoration initiatives could help in the global fight against climate change as the UN aims to remove up to 26 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by 2030. 

Experts also believe that restoration of land could lead to the creation of carbon sinks that are vital to keeping global carbon dioxide emissions in check.

“Land restoration has to be economically viable for the local population. Unless it is structured in a way that the investments trickle down, it is not going to be successful,” Barron Orr, lead scientist at UNCCD, told Al Jazeera. 

Orr said that as extreme weather intensifies and we witness more frequent droughts, flash floods and wildfires, availability and productivity of land will become increasingly crucial for climate change mitigation efforts, especially for the poor. 

“Which is why we need investments to fix this,” Orr said. “Marginal people should not be getting pushed on [to] marginal land”. 

Source: Al Jazeera