Earth’s degraded lands are at ‘breaking point’, warns UN expert

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PARIS: Decades of unsustainable agriculture have depleted soils around the world and accelerated both global warming and species loss, according to official UN efforts to reverse land degradation.

Ibrahim Thiaw is the executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), whose 197 parties — 196 countries plus the European Union — are meeting next month for the first time in three years, in Abidjan.

Thiaw spoke to AFP about the crisis of deteriorating land quality and how it is inextricably linked to climate change and biodiversity. The interview has been edited for length:

Q. International efforts to combat desertification have been going on for three decades, but have received far less attention than climate change and biodiversity. Are they less important?

“No. Human beings live off the land, but we also live off the land. We cannot take that for granted – land is a finite resource that needs to be managed, not just exploited and mined. We have already reached a breaking point: there is no longer a balance between our needs and the earth’s capacity to regenerate and produce.

Q. What are the key issues?

“Two are particularly critical. Droughts are hitting harder, and in more areas. No country is immune – look at the western United States. But when they hit vulnerable communities, it’s a major disaster. We see it now in the Horn of Africa, or last year in Madagascar. Droughts have always existed, but with climate change they are becoming more frequent and more severe.

“The other critical issue is sustainable land management. If drought is a problem, land restoration is a solution. When you invest in land, you build the resilience of your communities and create opportunities to make land that would otherwise have been wasted or lost productive again.

“Returning land also means fighting against poverty and illegal immigration. Numerous studies have established the link between land degradation and migration – in Haiti, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sahel and elsewhere. When people have no other choice, they flee, whether to the neighboring country or further afield.

Q. How does land degradation and restoration interact with climate change and biodiversity?

“The land emits carbon when it is degraded. Restoring the land to its natural state can help put that carbon back in its place. In Africa – which emits only 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions – soil repair is one of the best options for mitigating emissions. The continent is not overpopulated but 65% of the land has been degraded in 70 years.

“Biodiversity is more obvious: when you degrade land, you degrade ecosystems and destroy habitats. The reverse is also true.

“Land, water, climate, biodiversity — they are all deeply interconnected.”

Q. The latest Global Land Outlook report forecasts $1.6 trillion in land restoration investments over the next eight years. Considering how difficult it has been to mobilize finance for climate action, is this a realistic goal?

“For the climate, we’re talking about $100 billion of mostly public money expected to flow from developed to developing countries. We are talking here about the private sector, which has an interest in conserving the soil because it is the basis of its activity.

“Then there are the harmful subsidies that lead to land degradation. If we reallocate just one-fifth of these grants to land restoration and protection, we could be tackling climate change and biodiversity loss simultaneously.

Q. What are these perverse subsidies?

“Some countries subsidize chemicals that are put in the ground. Irrational irrigation subsidies can lead to the depletion of groundwater, as in the Middle East and the Sahara. Removing these subsidies will not cause significant harm to small consumers, but it could reduce the profits of large companies in the short term.

Q. What would you like to see as an outcome of next month’s meeting?

“We cannot continue to mourn people who are starving or continue to distribute food aid when more durable solutions are possible. We have technologies for early warning systems and insurance systems to help mitigate impacts.

“We also need to invest in land restoration. It makes sense from all points of view – economic, commercial, social, environmental. We expect this COP to issue a major call to decision makers to rethink our systems.

“How many millions more hectares of forest are we going to destroy? How much longer are we going to waste a third of the food we produce? How much longer are you going to produce animal feed while people are starving?

“It’s the generation that must turn the page and turn the tide. We destroy the planet in one generation, and we don’t have three generations to fix it. -AFP

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