The cost and consequences of the land transformation grossly underestimated says the UN 

Press Release

The cost and consequences of land use change are underestimated as demonstrated by COVID-19. Investing in the over 400 million hectares of land earmarked for restoration will help to build back better and safeguard our relationship with nature.

“The rapid and negative economic and social impacts of COVID-19 worldwide show the consequences of land use change are underestimated. The failure to slow and reverse the process of land use change may come at a very high cost in the future. It is in our interest, therefore, to ensure that as part of building back better, we take steps to help nature recover so that it works with and for, not against us,” says Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

“In a short space of time, COVID-19, a zoonotic disease, led to the worst economic crisis since the Second World War. A majority of the countries went into lockdown for two-months, on average. The global economy is heading for a recession and social relations are changing. The urgency both at the policy and practical levels to slow down and reverse land use change cannot be overstated,” Thiaw said.

“On the policy level, building back better means ensuring the policies to pre-empt or minimize land use change exist. On the practical level, it means the incentives to inspire consumers and producers to avoid land use change are provided. Both call for a world where people accept the right to draw from nature comes with the responsibility to take care of it – a social contract for nature,” he added.

Zoonosis is the crossing of viruses from animals to humans. The international community has battled five zoonotic diseases in two decades. Medical science shows that three out of every four emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Natural scientists claim land use change creates the ground for it, as the interaction and physical distance between animals and humans gets closer. 

According to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), over 70 percent of all the natural, ice-free land is affected by human use. Moreover, this could rise to 90 percent by 2050, if global land use follows the same path. 

Agricultural land for food, animal feed and fibre is behind this vast change, according to IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land. For the most part, the by-products from agriculture are consumed by urban dwellers and foreign inhabitants, not the local communities producing the goods, according to the World Atlas on Desertification.

Out to 2050, over 500 million hectares of new agricultural land will be needed to meet the global food demand, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“It’s reassuring, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, that we can build back better. In the last five years, countries agreed on the actions to halt land use change. Since then, close to 100 countries have earmarked areas for repair and restoration by 2030, in the largest ever global restoration initiative. A preliminary analysis shows over 400 million hectares earmarked under this initiative, which is about 80% of the agricultural land required to meet global food demand out to 2050,” he added.

The restoration of these areas as part of building back better to avoid future zoonosis would bring other crucial benefits, particularly mitigating climate change.

The IPCC Report shows that land-based actions are an essential part of the tools to be used to draw down carbon from the atmosphere into nature to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. It warns, however, that these land-based actions are only effective now, not later, because the land’s ability to fix carbon will decline, especially where the land is unhealthy. 
Every year, the ecosystem services lost due to land degradation are worth US$10.6 trillion per year, according to a study by the Economics of Land Degradation. By contrast, switching to sustainable land management practices could deliver up to US$1.4 trillion in increased crop production.

“The time for action is ripe because the social and economic outcomes of restoring degrading land are consistent with what citizens are demanding from their governments – jobs, action on climate change, peace and security,” Thiaw adds.

“The involvement of consumers is also essential,” says Park Chong-ho, Minister of Korea Forest Service.

“The Republic of Korea has provided US$570 million dollars for 15 years since 1973 to reverse land use change because after the Korean War we learned that halting and reversing land change is only possible when consumers make different choices that are backed by financial investments that aid the desired change,” he explains.

“Deforestation rates fell sharply as poverty declined, households turned to gas or anthracite coal instead of fuelwood and the government launched national forest rehabilitation projects to restore devastated forests and to support income generation of consumers. If consumers reward the land users who are increasing land productivity and governments provide additional support to them, it is possible to slow and reverse land degradation,” he added.

Thiaw and Ishii made the remarks at a virtual press conference in observance of the Desertification and Drought Day, which is observed this year under the theme, “Food. Feed. Fibre.” 

Republic of Korea is hosting the virtual global observance this year. Desertification and Drought day is held every year on 17 June, starting in 1995, with a view to raise awareness about the two issues.

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Detailed information about the observance is available on the UNCCD website.

For more information contact: kjimenez@unccd.int or press@unccd.int