Restoring degrading lands can help us mitigate climate change

Land can be our greatest ally in fighting climate change, but first we need to restore it to full health.

The Great Green Wall Initiative, which was launched by the AU in 2007, is aiming to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land across the Sahel in an 8,000 km-long strip, sequester 250 million tons of carbon, and create 10 million jobs in rural areas by 2030 []

Humanity faces a herculean task to reverse climate change and protect the natural world that supports us. We must retool human society to live in harmony with nature – all while leaving space for people in developing nations to prosper and grow.

We want this to happen immediately. But we must be realistic. Even if everyone starts immediately to turn their promises on climate change and nature loss into action – as they should and must – we are looking at decades of work.

To buy time to complete these transformations, particularly the transition to zero-carbon economies, we need fast-acting and simple solutions. Solutions that slow climate change, restore nature and biodiversity, protect us against pandemics, allow us to produce more food, create jobs, reduce inequalities, build peace.

Restoring degrading land can do all of that quickly, at relatively low cost, and with modest technological solutions. We must pull out all the stops to unlock the full potential of the land as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration gets underway.

We must be clear that land restoration cannot do it all. It is not a substitute for wider reform or an excuse for inaction. We still need to fully change the energy and transport systems, reform agriculture, rethink how we produce and consume resources, find ways to expand cities and infrastructure without destroying nature and so much more. But if we restore the land to health, we can deliver larger benefits.

One in every five hectares of land is unusable. Restoring just 350 million hectares of the degraded land could, by 2030, remove greenhouse gases roughly equal to half the world’s annual emissions from the atmosphere. Inaction is irresponsible at a time when we need to rapidly bring down emissions to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

What is more, restoring land can earn an extra 1.4 trillion in agricultural production every year, at a time when the world is trying to figure out how to feed ever-growing populations. It can reduce the need for new land clearances for agriculture, at a time when we need to reverse the rapid decline of nature and the biodiversity it supports. And it can reinstate natural buffers against diseases that jump from animals to humans, at a time when humanity is still counting the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restoring forests, wetlands and other ecosystems can fortify nature’s defences against weather extremes, at a time when climate change-linked storms, floods and droughts are becoming the norm. Restoring the land can create employment, at a time when hundreds of millions of jobs are being lost, hitting women and youth particularly hard in many countries.

This is not wishful thinking. The benefits of land restoration are visible now in many places, from Burkina Faso and China to Costa Rica.

Take Africa’s Great Green Wall Initiative, which is aiming to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land across the Sahel in an 8,000 km-long strip, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon, and create 10 million jobs in rural areas by 2030. The initiative, which was launched in 2007 by the African Union, has already restored over 20 million hectares across the continent, sequestered tonnes of carbon and created over 300,000 rural jobs. In response to these promising early results, a cash stimulus of over $14 billion, known as the Great Green Wall Accelerator, was announced by world leaders at the One Planet Summit in January to help speed up the completion of the project. This is the model we need to follow.

The number of countries and companies making commitments to keep the land healthy grew during the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification, which ended last year. Over 100 countries are now pursuing Land Degradation Neutrality goals through the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. This is 450 million hectares of commitments, and counting – roughly half of the one billion in global restoration commitments to date.

But we need to pick up the pace. More than 125 countries plan to restore about a billion hectares over the next decade. We need to pull out all the stops to deliver on these commitments. This should start with governments investing in land restoration in their pandemic recovery packages and placing a stronger focus on healthy land in national commitments under the Paris Agreement. It should continue all the way through the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Land is our greatest ally this decade as we seek to undo the damage our species has wrought on the nature, and ourselves. But first we must restore it to full health.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.