Together against land degradation

Gaining ground

The world's ecosystems are changing dramatically and land degradation is advancing. These graphics show what this has to do with climate change and what international initiatives and African countries want to do about it.

Tobias Moorstedt
Ole Häntzschel
April 27, 2022

The Problem

Humankind has already altered three quarters of the earth's land surface – through agriculture and forestry, settlement and mining. Nature is being pushed back further and further. This is not just about clearing forests. Even supposedly "green" farmland is being impacted through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and artificial irrigation. Its acreage is declining, and offering less space for biodiversity. In the long run, food production will also decrease.

The technical term for this is land degradation. The consequences can be dramatic: less water, lower agricultural productivity, more difficult living conditions for human beings and the natural environment. In the worst-case scenario, previously fertile soil becomes a desert. On the one hand, climate change is intensified by these processes; on the other hand, its impacts, such as lack of rain and extreme weather events, are speeding up the pace of land degradation. It’s a vicious circle.

On this map you can see how land productivity declined across the world between 1999 and 2013. This is the term experts use to describe not just agricultural yields, but also "the ability of the soil to sustain life". Satellite data show that land productivity is at risk or even declining on a fifth of the Earth's cultivated surface. Many of the affected areas are among the world’s poorest regions. That is a special challenge.

Source: World Atlas of Desertification

Land productivity is declining on one fifth of the earth's surface
World map land degradation – 1600x900
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The Politics

In 1992, the three Rio Declarations on Environment and Development were adopted: the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). "Land is the link between biodiversity loss and climate change, and provides fertile ground for immediate and concrete action to address both of these crises," states the United Nations Global Land Outlook, for example.

In practical policy terms, however, little attention has been paid to date to the fact that land use, biodiversity, and climate change are closely linked. That is why there are initiatives that aim to build bridges between the different Rio Conventions. The Global Compact for the Environment, for example, is intended to commit every state and institution, as well as every natural or legal person, to protecting the environment. The UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration aims to accelerate the implementation of the Rio Conventions. 

Restoring landscapes is not just about planting trees, but involves a wide variety of methods: sustainable management of fields and forests, greening roofs in cities, protecting particularly valuable landscapes such as forests, river courses or wetlands. If restoration is successful, this contributes to the resilience of nature and people – also in the face of climate change impacts. It is crucial that activities are adapted to local needs and that local people decide what makes sense for them and what should be tackled.

Existing international agreements - a holistic approach is necessary
What international politics need to do
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The Plan

Particularly large areas of Africa are threatened by land degradation and desertification. In many places such as the Sahel, farming feeds fewer and fewer people. This is where poverty is at its worst. It is here that the effects of climate change are being felt the most.

As part of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative AFR100, 31 African countries (light green in the map) have therefore set themselves the goal of restoring a total of 100 million hectares of land by 2030. They want to restore forests, promote tree plantations in agriculture and agroforestry, and rebuild ecosystems such as the grasslands of the savannah or mangrove forests in coastal waters.

For this reason, AFR100 is also contributing to the global Bonn Challenge initiated by Germany that aims to restore 350 million hectares of deforested or eroded land worldwide by 2030. The second major initiative on the African continent is the Great Green Wall, which aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land in the Sahel by 2030 to stop desert expansion while sequestering CO2 to combat climate change. The countries participating in the Great Green Wall initiative are colored dark green in this map.

By 2030, 100 million hectares of land will be restored in Africa
Initiatives in Africa against soil degradation
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