Worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change. It is also a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict, according to the world's first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration.
The dangers of land degradation, which cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world's annual gross product in 2010 through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, are detailed for policymakers, together with a catalogue of corrective options, in the three-year assessment report by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries, launched today.
Produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the report was approved at the 6th session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia. IPBES has 129 State Members.
Providing the best-available evidence for policymakers to make better-informed decisions, the report draws on more than 3,000 scientific, Government, indigenous and local knowledge sources. Extensively peer-reviewed, it was improved by more than 7,300 comments, received from over 200 external reviewers.
Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services - food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached 'critical' levels in many parts of the world, the report says.
"With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth's land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction," said Prof. Robert Scholes (South Africa), co-chair of the assessment with Dr. Luca Montanarella (Italy). "Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth and to ensure human well-being."
"Wetlands have been particularly hard hit," said Dr. Montanarella. "We have seen losses of 87% in wetland areas since the start of the modern era - with 54% lost since 1900."
According to the authors, land degradation manifests in many ways: land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and fresh water, as well as deforestation.
Underlying drivers of land degradation, says the report, are the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies. High and rising per capita consumption, amplified by continued population growth in many parts of the world, can drive unsustainable levels of agricultural expansion, natural resource and mineral extraction, and urbanization - typically leading to greater levels of land degradation.
By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands. Less than 25% of the Earth's land surface has escaped substantial impacts of human activity - and by 2050, the IPBES experts estimate this will have fallen to less than 10%.
Crop and grazing lands now cover more than one third of the Earth´s land surface, with recent clearance of native habitats, including forests, grasslands and wetlands, being concentrated in some of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet.
The report says increasing demand for food and biofuels will likely lead to continued increase in nutrient and chemical inputs and a shift towards industrialized livestock production systems, with pesticide and fertilizer use expected to double by 2050.
Avoidance of further agricultural expansion into native habitats can be achieved through yield increases on the existing farmlands, shifts towards less land degrading diets, such as those with more plant-based foods and less animal protein from unsustainable sources, and reductions in food loss and waste.
"Through this report, the global community of experts has delivered a frank and urgent warning, with clear options to address dire environmental damage," said Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES.
"Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation - they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together."
The IPBES report finds that land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another major driver of the changing climate has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2.
Given the importance of soil's carbon absorption and storage functions, the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold targeted in the Paris Agreement on climate change, increase food and water security, and contribute to the avoidance of conflict and migration.
"In just over three decades from now, an estimated 4 billion people will live in drylands," said Prof. Scholes. "By then it is likely that land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, will have forced 50-700 million people to migrate. Decreasing land productivity also makes societies more vulnerable to social instability - particularly in dryland areas, where years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict."
Dr. Montanarella added: "By 2050, the combination of land degradation and climate change is predicted to reduce global crop yields by an average of 10%, and by up to 50% in some regions. In the future, most degradation will occur in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia - the areas with the most land still remaining that is suitable for agriculture."
The report also underlines the challenges that land degradation poses, and the importance of restoration, for key international development objectives, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. "The greatest value of the assessment is the evidence that it provides to decision makers in Government, business, academia and even at the level of local communities," said Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES. "With better information, backed by the consensus of the world's leading experts, we can all make better choices for more effective action."
The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem, and that many well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, can avoid or reverse degradation.
In croplands, for instance, some of these include reducing soil loss and improving soil health, the use of salt tolerant crops, conservation agriculture and integrated crop, livestock and forestry systems.
In rangelands with traditional grazing, maintenance of appropriate fire regimes, and the reinstatement or development of local livestock management practices and institutions have proven effective.
Successful responses in wetlands have included control over pollution sources, managing the wetlands as part of the landscape, and reflooding wetlands damaged by draining.
In urban areas, urban spatial planning, replanting with native species, the development of 'green infrastructure' such as parks and riverways, remediation of contaminated and sealed soils (e.g. under asphalt), wastewater treatment and river channel restoration are identified as key options for action.
Opportunities to accelerate action identified in the report include:
Among the areas identified by the report as opportunities for further research are:
The report found that higher employment and other benefits of land restoration often exceed by far the costs involved. On average, the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs (estimated across nine different biomes), and, for regions like Asia and Africa, the cost of inaction in the face of land degradation is at least three times higher than the cost of action.
"Fully deploying the toolbox of proven ways to stop and reverse land degradation is not only vital to ensure food security, reduce climate change and protect biodiversity," said Dr. Montanarella, "It's also economically prudent and increasingly urgent."
Echoing this message, Sir Robert Watson, said: "Of the many valuable messages in the report, this ranks among the most important: implementing the right actions to combat land degradation can transform the lives of millions of people across the planet, but this will become more difficult and more costly the longer we take to act."
Proven approaches to halting and reversing land degradation include:
Examples of well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, to halt degradation of agricultural lands include:
Rangelands with traditional grazing in many dryland regions have benefitted from maintaining appropriate fire regimes and the reinstatement or development of local livestock management practices and institutions. A variety of passive or active forest management and restoration techniques have successfully conserved biodiversity and avoided forest degradation while yielding multiple economic, social and environmental benefits.
Combating land degradation resulting from invasive species involves the identification and monitoring of invasion pathways and the adoption of eradication and control measures (mechanical, cultural, biological and chemical).
Responses to land degradation from mineral resource extraction include:
>Effective responses to avoid, reduce and reverse wetland degradation include:
"The assessment of land degradation and restoration by IPBES is a wake-up call for us all. It shows the alarming scale of transformation that humankind has imposed on the land and the changing nature of the forces driving land degradation. We live in an increasingly connected world, yet as consumers we are living ever further away from the lands that sustain us. Addressing land degradation location by location is insufficient when consumption in one part of the world influences the land and people in another. The global target of Land Degradation Neutrality requires a new land agenda that ensures we can effectively, sustainably and equitably manage these dynamics." - Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
"Unsustainable land use is scarring the Earth for generations. It is costing us billions, impacting human health and contributing to climate change. This report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems is a comprehensive effort to build credible scientific evidence so we can make much better decisions about land - for our people and our planet." - Erik Solheim, Executive Director of UN Environment
This report demonstrates the challenges we face due to global soil degradation, and the impact on human life if this critical issue is not urgently addressed. It is now essential to translate the report's recommendations into tangible action. To do this, we will need to put biodiversity and people's well-being at the heart of decision making, and foster interaction between all sectors of society. UNESCO will play its role by bringing experience and mobilizing its resources and networks to build these bridges between culture, education, science local and indigenous knowledge. - Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO
"The degradation of land resources undermines our efforts to end hunger. The Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment will be an important guide for our country partners and FAO alike, as it draws on the best available science and local expertise. Managing land resources is critical for ensuring our vision for sustainable food and agriculture, and we are happy to have contributed to this effort. A healthy soil is the backbone of all healthy food system." - José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
"Around 12 million hectares of land are lost each year to degradation. In addition to harming the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, land degradation costs more than 10% of annual global GDP in lost ecosystem services like preventing harmful nutrient run-off into streams or decreasing the effects of floods. Halting and reversing current trends of land degradation could generate up to USD 1.4 trillion per year of economic benefits and go a long way in helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals." - Achim Steiner, Administrator of UNDP
IPBES has today released the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the IPBES Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration. The SPM present the key messages and policy options, as approved by the IPBES Plenary. To access the SPM online: goo.gl/ERXLNr The complete report (inclusive of all data) will be published later this year.
Often described as the "IPCC for biodiversity" IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body comprising 129 member Governments. Established by Governments in 2012, it provides policymakers with objective scientific assessments about the state of knowledge regarding the planet's biodiversity, ecosystems and the contributions they make to people, as well as the tools and methods to protect and sustainably use these vital natural assets. For more information about IPBES and its assessments visit www.ipbes.net
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