Courtesy of World Economic Forum

Land Degradation Or Desertification? Semantics May Be Crucial To Understanding Climate Impacts Of Human Activity

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Words matter. Desertification is a term we hear a lot about these days, but it may be sending the wrong message to those who don’t understand what it means to climate scientists. Say “desertification” to most people and they see the Sahara, a trackless expanse of sand where only camels can survive. Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, tells Bloomberg Green, “There is a misunderstanding of the term desertification. That’s why we also use “land degradation.”

“The world is rapidly losing usable land for self-inflicted reasons, ranging from intensive agriculture and overgrazing of livestock to real estate development and, yes, climate change. The crisis is further fueling food and water insecurity, as well as adding to more greenhouse gas emissions,” Bloomberg says.

Agriculture is a double-edged sword. People need to eat to survive, which makes farming crucial to human existence. About 40% of the land on Earth some — 5 billion hectares — is used for farming. One-third of that is used to grow crops and the rest is used for grazing livestock. On the other hand, over the past 500 years, human activity (mainly agriculture) has led to nearly 2 billion hectares of land being degraded, Bloomberg says.

Agriculture has been responsible for about 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide released from the disturbance, or the soil, or about a quarter of all greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to date. Further land degradation between now and 2050 could add another 120 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, making global heating worse than it already is. Thiaw said focusing attention on land restoration projects could flip this script. “There are no solutions for land degradation that also don’t have benefits for other problems we face.”

Land Degradation & The World Economic Forum

Addressing land degradation could yield important economic as well as environmental benefits, A World Economic Forum report found that investing about $2.7 trillion each year in ecosystem restoration, regenerative agriculture and circular business models could help add nearly 400 million new jobs and generate more than $10 trillion in economic value annually. The WEF report says:

There is no future for business as usual. we are reaching irreversible tipping points for nature and climate, and over half of the global GDP — $44 trillion — is potentially threatened by nature loss. Fighting climate change is essential but not enough to address the nature crisis. A fundamental transformation is needed across three socioeconomic systems: food, land and ocean use; infrastructure and the built environment; and energy and extractive industries.

80 percent of threatened and near-threatened species are endangered by those three systems, which are responsible for the most significant business-related pressures to biodiversity. They are also the systems with the largest opportunity to lead in co-creating nature-positive pathways. 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 trillion that could create 395 million jobs by 2030 have been identified that together can pave the way towards a people and nature positive development that will be resilient to future shocks.

There are five main drivers of biodiversity loss: changes in land and sea use; over-exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species. Climate change is currently responsible for between 11% and 16% of biodiversity loss. This share is expected only to increase, and it has the potential to trigger irreversible biome-scale ecosystem disruptions, making the decarbonization of the economy essential to limiting longer term nature loss.

Yet, as important and daunting as the decarbonization of the economy is, it is not enough if the other direct drivers of nature loss are not concurrently tackled. Businesses, through their operations and supply chains, directly impact nature. Whether through changes in land and sea use, over-exploitation or pollution, their activities can have long lasting harmful consequences for nature. These drivers of biodiversity loss need to be addressed urgently to stop nature loss, and these are ones this report mainly focuses on.

Land Degradation & A Civil Society

Courtesy of World Economic Forum

Businesses can take practical actions to turn these opportunities into reality by working with governments and civil society to set the agenda, push the transitions forward, and accelerate policy reforms. Governments globally spend more than $600 billion on direct agricultural subsidies that can be redirected toward practices that help land restoration and increase yields, said Thiaw. “There’s nothing more irrational than taking public money to destroy your own natural capital,” he said. “But it is being done election after election.”

One reason why the problem of land degradation has been largely ignored might be that humans have lost their link to the land, according to Osama Ibrahim Faqeeha, president of the upcoming COP16 on desertification which will be held in Saudi Arabia this year. “A big portion of the population lives in cities now. We live in a concrete forest,” he said. “So few people have a direct connection between us and food production.”

Another explanation might have to do with how rich countries treated the problem. “For the longest time it was considered an African issue” by developed countries, said Thiaw. “It was not seen as a global issue.” Today land degradation and drought affect almost every country in the world.

Even the biggest economy in the world isn’t able to ignore land degradation. “When you think about soil, the US Secretary of State is probably not the first person who comes to mind,” said Antony Blinken at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. “But the truth is soil is literally at the root of many pressing national security challenges we face.”

Global demand for food is expected to increase 50% by 2050, said Blinken, even as climate change could reduce global yields by 30%. “A parent who can’t put food on the table for their children picks up the family and moves,” he said, “And if that means moving halfway around the world, they will. But that contributes to unprecedented migration flows.”

The Takeaway

One simple way to look at the problem of land degradation is this simple aphorism — Take care of the Earth and the Earth will take care of you. So simple to say, but so contrary to human nature. Part of the reason for that is religious. Some claim God granted humans dominion over the Earth and everything on it. That construct assumes God wants to see our planet degraded to the point where most humans will no longer be able to survive.

If that’s your reading of the Bible, you need a checkup from the neck up. If there is a God (a matter of some debate in certain parts of society), he/she/it could not possibly take delight in seeing that which was created so degraded. That makes absolutely no sense, so why do we continue to believe it?

Anthony Blinken is correct. Degradation of the land will lead to mass migrations. Rather than setting up machine gun nests on the banks of the Rio Grande and slaughtering immigrants who try to cross, the most cost effective way to deal with immigration is to eliminate the reasons why people decide to leave their homes in search of better access to clean water and food. By that logic, solving climate change and its attendant consequences such as land degradation is the best economic investment we could possibly make and the best solution to mass migration. So let’s get started!


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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