Achieving environment objectives towards sustainable recovery: Addressing land degradation for the achievement of the SDG15 and as leverage for climate solutions
G20 members, and many others, have made a multitude of commitments to restore planetary health. These include targets on climate change, on land degradation, on biodiversity loss. But many of us just need to look out of our windows to see where commitments have gotten us.
When I look out of my window in Bonn, I see the rocky riverbed emerging as the Rhine drops lower by the day. What do others see? Drought in Italy’s Po region devastating the country’s breadbasket. Wildfires raging through France, Spain and Portugal, destroying forests, killing cattle. The list goes on.
Water and heat stress are driving down Europe’s crop forecasts – at a time when there are major disruptions to global cereal supplies.
Energy production has been hit as lower water levels reduce nuclear and hydropower capacity – a problem that is also affecting China, as parts of the Yangtze dry up.
Meanwhile, over 40 per cent of the United States faced drought conditions in early August. Flooding in Australia cost the insurance industry billions of dollars. The Horn of Africa is suffering its worst drought in over 40 years, plunging millions into severe hunger and projecting a human cost of a cataclysmic magnitude.
Agriculture and the textile industries are significantly affected across the world. Cotton production is seriously affected, including in top producing countries such as India, China, Brazil, the U.S. with dire effects on the economy.
Promises and commitments have not gotten us very far and we are in the midst of convergent crises. A crisis of climate change. A crisis of food insecurity. A crisis of water scarcity. A crisis of degraded land. A crisis of declining nature. A crisis of energy.
These crises will intensify if we do nothing.
By 2030, an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of being displaced by drought. By 2040, one in four children could live in areas with extreme water shortages. By 2050, droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population.
We cannot let this future come to pass. We must start acting on commitments, now.
This is the focus of the UNCCD: turning commitments into action. This means achieving land-degradation neutrality – including restoring land and helping drought-prone countries put in place drought-smart strategies.
The UNCCD supports, for instance, the Great Green Wall initiative, which aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon and create 10 million green jobs in the Sahel by 2030.
Likewise the Saudi-led Middle East Green Initiative, aims to back regional nature-based solutions and plant billions of trees. Most recently, the 2.5 billion dollar Abidjan Legacy Programme launched by President Outtara at our 15th Conference of the Parties held in Abidjan under the leadership of Côte D’Ivoire, will help future-proof supply chains while tackling deforestation and climate change.
Which brings me to the G20’s Global Initiative on Reducing Land Degradation and Enhancing Conservation of Terrestrial Habitats, which you launched two years ago. It is now up and running, hosted by the UNCCD Secretariat.
We have been working with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to operationalise the Global Initiative to support countries with their restoration efforts.
Please allow me to dig a little deeper into how land restoration can serve as a climate solution, an energy solution, and indeed a solution to many challenges from boosting livelihoods to restoring nature.
Protecting and restoring land resources reduces emissions and sequesters carbon. It could provide over one-third of the cost-effective, land-based climate mitigation needed between now and 2030.
Ecosystem restoration is one of the quickest ways of boosting natural capital and carbon stocks.
Degraded farmlands abandoned worldwide are currently estimated at roughly 30 per cent of global cropland area. Options for bringing these lands back to productive life include rehabilitation for sustainable food and commodity production or rewilding for biodiversity and climate benefits.
Restoration is not the only route, however.
In Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, the biggest mitigation opportunities involve sustainable intensification practices that avoid ecosystem conversion.
Emissions can be reduced by improving the efficiency of inputs such as water, adopting sustainable soil and livestock management practices, shifting towards plant-based diets, and reducing food waste.
Food and commodity production systems that use diverse crops, animals and native biodiversity mimic natural processes that increase carbon storage.
Such efforts, and many more besides, will reduce emissions. They will also help communities adapt to climate impacts that are already locked in. They will deliver benefits across the whole sustainable development agenda.
This includes reducing competition between sectors for scarce water resources – which matters greatly for renewable energy.
As I mentioned earlier, rivers running dry spells bad news for hydropower and transport. Slowing climate change is one way to ensure that predictable rainfall feeds rivers and reservoirs, allowing power and agriculture to draw enough water.
But there are other ways to unite the nature and energy agendas, such as building renewal energy farms in agricultural landscapes.
There are many examples that already show the unification of the agendas in action.
In the US, The Silicon Ranch Corporation combines clean electricity generation with carbon sequestration, ecosystem restoration and rural economic revitalization. In 2020, a partnership between White Oak Pastures and Silicon Ranch began regenerative grazing and land management practices on 950 solar farm hectares in southwest Georgia.
In China, Astronergy/Chint Solar has transformed abandoned agricultural land into a solar park where crops are grown around solar panels. Over 25 years, the power generation is expected to be 4.9 billion kilowatts, meeting the electricity demands of 400,000 people.
In Namibia, a Rangeland Management Policy and Strategy is guiding the restoration of degraded rangelands by targeted bush thinning. Accumulated biomass from thinning is then processed into animal fodder, charcoal, biochar, building material, or wood chips. One assessment suggesting that bush control and biomass utilization could generate net benefits of around USD 3 billion over 25 years, and support 10,000 jobs annually.
All of this goes to say that we don’t just have the commitments in place. We have the solutions at our fingertips. What has been lacking is the will to go beyond the commitment phase – beyond the ad hoc solution here and there, to widespread systemic change.
So, today I challenge you to look out the window, or look at the news, and ask yourself a simple question: is this the kind of world I want to live in? The answer can only be “no”. The response can only be to summon up the will to act.
I urge you to begin sincerely implementing the G20 initiative’s target of a 50 per cent reduction in degraded land by 2040, but also to make plans to exceed it – both in terms of timeline and scope.
I urge you to invest in restoring land, so that it boosts water storage, reverses biodiversity loss and increases food production. To back sustainable agriculture that uses less land, water, and harmful inputs. To start changing society’s unhealthy relationships with food, fodder and fibre. I urge you, above all else, to act.
The present is not what we envisioned. But the future is still ours to shape. We must start shaping it now.