Land restoration and its benefits – the faces of restoration
Land restoration is an essential component of any building-forward strategy.
Without land restoration, we will continue to face global crises. Ensuring food and water security, reducing emissions and conserving biodiversity will not be possible without concerted efforts to regenerate our natural capital and transform our food systems.
Land is the foundation of our societies. Over half of global GDP relies on what the land gives us. 99.9 per cent of the food we consume comes from land.
Land degradation already threatens the livelihoods and security of over three billion people (IPBES report 2018)
- More than 125 countries have committed to targets and measures to restore the land, which is a strong start. And the impact can be much bigger if COVID-19 stimulus packages are targeted toward green objectives.
- However, only about 2.5 per cent of recovery spending has green objectives.
We have the tools to create healthier and more resilient societies and economies.
- more responsible land governance,
- investments that protect and restore land and nature, and
- long-term strategic planning.
The pandemic has given us a rare opportunity to rethink the future we can create: healthier citizens, more secure livelihoods and greater equality for all. We can seize that opportunity now if we put land-centered solutions at the center of green recovery. (Source)
- The land is the basis of our food, feed and fibre production systems
Land is home to a vast part of the global biodiversity and provides ecosystem services such as clean water, air and climate regulation. But growing demand for these goods, combined with expanding cities and infrastructure, is rapidly encroaching upon nature and its support to people.
As land degrades and becomes unproductive, natural areas are cleared and converted. This means more greenhouse gas emissions and less biodiversity. It also means fewer wild spaces that serve as a buffer to zoonoses such as COVID-19 and protect from extreme climate events such as droughts, floods, sand and dust storms.
Evidence shows that in some countries the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 restrictions led to reduced environmental standards and regulations for companies and industries to pursue quick economic recovery.
- Where do we stand
Nearly three quarters of the Earth’s ice-free land has been transformed, mainly to meet the demand for food, raw materials and human settlement.
Land use change is the primary transmission pathway for emerging infectious diseases of humans, over 60 per cent of which are zoonotic.(UNCCD )
Nearly one million species are at risk of extinction. Changes in land use is one of the main drivers.(UN News)
Land degradation is a lost opportunity for massive carbon sequestration. If humans continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates, global temperature will rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius target within decades.(UNFCCC)
Current commitments from over 100 countries specify the restoration of almost one billion hectares of land over the next decade – an area almost the size of China. (PBL report)
If we restore this land, we can deliver massive benefits for people and the planet. Investing in land restoration creates jobs and generates economic benefits, providing livelihoods at a time when hundreds of millions of jobs are being lost.
- To give just one example, in Niger efforts to naturally regenerate the land increased tree cover by up to 20 times over 30 years, helping to double farmers’ incomes and improving grain yields by 10 per cent on average.(UNCCD)
Land-based restoration is central to creating opportunities for women and youth, who tend to be marginalized in times of crisis. Innovative restoration approaches could bring young job seekers back to their communities while reducing workloads.
- For example, women, especially in developing nations, are widely represented in agricultural production and land management and are often responsible for meeting the basic nutritional needs of their families. They have much to gain from the increased productivity of restored lands, and often have knowledge that can be used to increase the success of restoration projects.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will support initiatives that provide entrepreneurial youths working in ecosystem restoration with the tools they need to succeed. Investing in land restoration also boosts food security. Of the one billion hectares covered by these commitments, 250 million can be restored to produce food.
In addition to increasing food and nutrition security, economic security is also improved when degraded land is restored. This in turn facilitates economic empowerment, which raises the standard of living and quality of life for communities.(Sources: UNCCD Land &Youth; International Resource Panel report )
Restoring forests, wetlands and other ecosystems mitigates against climate change and restores nature’s defences against disasters and extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and sand and dust storms. It provides a natural buffer against zoonotic diseases.
- Between now and 2030, it is estimated that the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems could remove up to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – close to almost half of what the world emitted in 2019 – and return USD 9 trillion in ecosystem services.(UN News)
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is an opportunity to ramp up and scale out these efforts to prevent, halt and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide.
The UNCCD is calling on all members of the global community to treat the land as a limited and precious natural capital, prioritize its health in the pandemic recovery and promote land restoration during the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Everyone has a role to play because everyone has a stake in the future. (Source)
- Land degradation neutrality (LDN) provides a framework to encourage sustainable land management and land restoration
Land degradation neutrality (LDN) is based on ecological principles and understanding of human-environment interactions. It can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation through carbon sequestration in vegetation and soil, as well as supporting food security, sustainable livelihoods and biodiversity conservation. UNFCCC; (IPBES report 2018)
The IPCC has documented, with high confidence, that policies promoting LDN – which is contained within SDG Target 15.3 – can also enhance food security, human wellbeing and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
The UN General Assembly has recently reaffirmed that achieving LDN has the potential to act as an accelerator and integrator for achieving the SDGs and respond to the overall objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and recognized that land-based solutions, as part of nature-based solutions, constitute promising options to evaluate and consider in connection with sequestering carbon and enhancing the resilience of people and ecosystems affected by desertification, land degradation and drought, as well as the adverse effects of climate change (Source; Source) It is important to ensure more effective collaboration and commitments to working together at all scales.
- Land restoration is key to meeting the Paris Agreement
Restoring degrading lands can help us mitigate climate change
Restoring degrading land can do all of that quickly, at relatively low cost, and with modest technological solutions. We must pull out all the stops to unlock the full potential of the land as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration gets underway.
We must be clear that land restoration cannot do it all. It is not a substitute for wider reform or an excuse for inaction. We still need to fully change the energy and transport systems, reform agriculture, rethink how we produce and consume resources, find ways to expand cities and infrastructure without destroying nature and so much more. But if we restore the land to health, we can deliver larger benefits.
One in every five hectares of land is unusable. Restoring just 350 million hectares of the degraded land could, by 2030, remove greenhouse gases roughly equal to half the world’s annual emissions from the atmosphere. Inaction is irresponsible at a time when we need to rapidly bring down emissions to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. (Source)
Nature-based solutions can provide up to 37 percent of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under 2°C.( Source)
Recarbonizing the terrestrial biosphere involves creation of a positive C budget in soil and vegetation through conversion to a restorative land use and adoption of best management practices. The technical potential of soil organic carbon sequestration through adoption of sustainable land management of world cropland soils (about 1.5 billion hectares) is 0.4 billion to 1.2 billion mt of carbon per year ( Source; Source)
- Another good strategy for soil carbon sequestration is the restoration of degraded/ desertified soils (about 2 billion hectares), which can be achieved through afforestation and reforestation. The technical potential of soil carbon sequestration through restoration of degraded / desertified soils is 0.6 billion to 1 billion mt of carbon per year (Source; Source)
- The theoretical potential for climate change mitigation through increasing carbon in vegetation and soil is vast: 14-37 GtCO2e (up to 10 GtC)] per year UNFCCC; Source. This includes 1.9-5.2 GtCO2e (0.5-1.4 GtC) from soil carbon sequestration through land restoration in the drylands .(Source)
For comparison, the gap between projected global emissions without climate policy and the +2°C target for 2030 is 25 GtCO2e (UNEP 2018 Emissions gap report)
However, land can realistically contribute only a portion of the mitigation and carbon dioxide removal required to stabilize the climate – strong action is also required to achieve rapid decarbonisation across all sectors (IPCC report 2019)
- Land restoration is key to biodiversity conservation
Extensive ecosystem restoration is increasingly seen as central to conserving biodiversity (IPBES report 2018)
- A global meta-analysis indicated that the restoration of degraded systems enhanced overall biodiversity by 44 per cent and provided a range of benefits across targeted degraded ecosystems (Source)
This includes improved management of agricultural lands. Sustainable land management approaches in croplands are designed to influence common soil management practices (fertiliser application, zero tillage, cultivation, fallowing and crop rotations) in a way that will optimize the soil nutrient balance and soil microbial community diversity, which in turn supports the diversity of flora/fauna that rely on the supporting ecosystem services underpinned by these microbes (Source).
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (UNDER) 2021-2030 aims to massively scale up the restoration of degraded ecosystems as a proven measure to fight climate change, enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity, and manage associated risks of conflict and migration.
Sustainable land management (SLM) is key to restoration of terrestrial ecosystems: it is at the core of maintaining, or re-establishing, life in the land.
SLM has a central role to play in all the eight UNDER ecosystems – farmlands, grasslands, forests, mountains, freshwaters, urban areas, peatlands, oceans and coasts – through combatting land degradation at farm and landscape levels. It enhances production and improves livelihoods while simultaneously generating multiple environmental co-benefits.
Through SLM, land degradation can be avoided, reduced and/or reversed. It helps land degradation neutrality targets to be met. SLM can only have a significant impact on ecosystem restoration, however, when it spreads widely, covering a critical mass of land and people, and when maintained and adapted over time.
A combination of SLM practices is required to benefit entire ecosystems. People – young and old, women and men, rural and urban – have directly contributed to ecosystem degradation. But equally, they constitute the primary agents of restoration. Humankind suffers, and benefits, according to the state of ecosystems. Harnessing people’s efforts and arming them with knowledge and support is the way to upscale SLM to the ecosystem level.(Source)
- Land restoration for a Green Recovery – The Solution
Land restoration is a proven and cost-effective strategy that can jumpstart a green economic recovery. It creates green jobs, uplifts rural communities, and delivers significant co-benefits for human health, biodiversity, and climate change.
Land restoration offers multiple pathways towards a green recovery and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
- For an estimated USD 2.7 trillion per year – comfortably within the scope of the proposed COVID spending – we could transform the world’s economies through restoring natural ecosystems, rewarding agriculture that keeps soils healthy, and incentivizing business models that prioritize renewable, recyclable or biodegradable products and services.
Within a decade, the global economy could create 395 million new jobs, generating over USD10 trillion in annual business value.
For example: Every USD1 invested in restoring degraded forests can yield USD7–30 in economic benefits.
- Restoring 150 million hectares of degraded agricultural land could generate USD 85 billion for national and local economies, USD 30–40 billion a year in additional income for smallholder farmers and increased food security for close to 200 million people.
- Preventing topsoil loss could create nearly USD 1 trillion in benefits over the next 15 years in Africa alone. Doing nothing would cost double that. (Restored Land. Healthy People. Green Recovery: Build Forward Better with Land-Centered Solutions UNCCD)
- The Scale of the Challenge – Reversing Course
A million species face extinction due to habitat loss. We are losing more value than we produce. Between 1997 and 2011, land-use change caused losses averaging USD 20 trillion worth of ecosystem services every year.
Land degradation alone accounted for 30 per cent of that, three times the global market value of agricultural products. Over a quarter of greenhouse gases arise from agriculture, forestry, and other land uses.
- By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will suffer absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world will be living under water shortages. Our ability to provide stable food and nutritional security for a growing population is at serious risk.
- Science and current agriculture have increased productivity in the short-term, but resulting soil degradation has reduced the concentrations of vitamins and nutrients in our food.
- By 2050, on our present course, global crop yields are estimated to fall 10 per cent, with some regions suffering up to a 50% reduction.
- As a result, world food prices are expected to rise by an estimated 30%.
Ensuring food security for 9.7 billion people by 2050 while meeting the other goals of the Paris Agreement will be possible only if we scale up land restoration and regeneration to transform our food systems (Restored Land, Healthy People, Green Recovery. Build Forward Better with Land-Centered Solutions UNCCD)
The new, potentially game-changing opportunity is to integrate land degradation neutrality initiatives into national COVID-19 recovery packages as well as existing international processes, such as the Nationally Determined Contributions to combat climate change and the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. (Restored Land, Healthy People, Green Recovery. Build Forward Better with Land-Centered Solutions UNCCD)
- The International Response - Restoring Planetary Balance
Countries recognize the urgent need for land restoration. At the start of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030), national pledges to act already cover over 1 billion hectares.
- The UN General Assembly recently affirmed that combating desertification, land degradation and drought – and achieving land degradation neutrality – is a pathway to accelerate progress towards achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals.
Healthy and productive land is the foundation of livelihoods, human health, social stability and often the most important asset held by the rural poor.
The land degradation crisis has a disproportionate impact on disenfranchised populations, marginalized and vulnerable communities. Strengthening land tenure and rights is a major step to environmental security.
For the rural poor, land is often the sole source of livelihoods and the only safety net during crises and times of stress.
As poverty deepens, people are either forced to migrate or respond in ways that cause even more damage to nature and diminish the productive capacity of the land.
Many individuals and communities in developing countries have little or no tenure security in current land administration systems.
- Less than a quarter of countries maintain complete land administration systems.
- An estimated 4 billion of the world’s 6 billion tenures remain outside any formal governance arrangements.
- More than 70 per cent of the world’s farmland is controlled by 1 per cent of farms, primarily large agribusinesses.
- Over 80 per cent of farms are subsistence smallholdings of less than two hectares, covering only 12 per cent of total farmland.
- Lack of tenure security and the accelerating consolidation of land limits access to resources, extension services, and production inputs (such as technologies, credit, markets) as well as the ability to have a say in land use and management decisions.
Women and landless households are particularly disadvantaged (Restored Land. Healthy People. Green Recovery; Build Forward Better with Land-Centered Solutions UNCCD)
- New Jobs – Working towards Restored Lands
Restoring the land can create employment, at a time when hundreds of millions of jobs are being lost, hitting women and youth particularly hard in many countries.
This is not wishful thinking. The benefits of land restoration are visible now in many places, from Burkina Faso and China to Costa Rica.
Take Africa’s Great Green Wall Initiative, which is aiming to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land across the Sahel in an 8,000 km-long strip, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon, and create 10 million jobs in rural areas by 2030. The initiative, which was launched in 2007 by the African Union, has already restored over 20 million hectares across the continent, sequestered tonnes of carbon and created over 300,000 rural jobs. In response to these promising early results, a cash stimulus of over $14 billion, known as the Great Green Wall Accelerator, was announced by world leaders at the One Planet Summit in January to help speed up the completion of the project. This is the model we need to follow.
The number of countries and companies making commitments to keep the land healthy grew during the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification, which ended last year.
Over 100 countries are now pursuing Land Degradation Neutrality goals through the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. This is 450 million hectares of commitments, and counting – roughly half of the one billion in global restoration commitments to date. (Source)
Organic farms, for example, require more labor than conventional farms but generate greater returns. They need fewer external inputs, less mechanization, have more diversity and complex rotation practices.
- In the USA, farms with regenerative practices were estimated to be 78 per cent more profitable than those with only conventional practices.
- In the USA, landscape restoration creates between 10 and 39 jobs per USD one million of investment, at least twice that of the oil and gas sector.
- A Pakistan investment of PKR ten billion (USD 63 million) has already delivered 85,000 jobs in nursery raising, plant care, forest protection, and fire-fighting activities, expected to rise to 200,000 in the next few months. (Restored Land, Healthy People, Green Recovery. Build Forward Better with Land-Centered Solutions UNCCD)
- Stories from the Land
“Many people come to see our crops: when they see the dynamic agroforestry system they feel obliged to change” – Dynamic Agroforestry farmers Don Bernabé Ramos and his wife. Dynamic Agroforestry, Bolivia Source: WOCAT
We have removed hundreds of kilometers of fences and seen a big increase in wildlife. Before, there were just a few, and many would get stuck in the fences and die” – Mr. Jackie Vlees, NamibRand Nature Reserve Restoring Game Migration Routes, Namibia Source: WOCAT
’I get a substantial amount of manure to fertilize the soil, enabling me to produce vegetables on a small piece of land’’ – Testimony from the urban farmer. Zero-Grazing and Biogas, Uganda Source: WOCAT
’After I planted between big trees, I have found the coffee trees are healthier, production and income have increased because of the soil fertility and extra moisture" – Mr. Thong, Attapue Province. Shade-Grown Coffee, Lao People’s Democratic Republic Source: WOCAT
The work done at Mar and other estates in restoring eroded peatland will hopefully be the forerunner of many larger projects" – Mark Nicolson, Mar Estate. Peatland Restoration, United Kingdom Source: WOCAT
Living Oasis: The Fight against Desertification in Morocco Programme Oasis Sud (POS) was initially designed as a modest program in a marginalized area. In 2011, it evolved into a comprehensive program for sustainable territorial development. Its budget exceeded US$34 million. By 2014, it had created an estimated 5,500 jobs. Source: Land for life
Restoring the Resilience of Ethiopia’s Highland Peoples and Landscapes. Teje Gelaw, Farmer “I am a farmer. I till my plot of land to earn a living. SLM gave me this plot of land to farm. It used to be eroded, but now you can see how fertile it is. Since the terraces were built, the grass is well protected and we cut it for use as animal feed. Source: Land for life
Serayetu Zelalm “I am a member of the catchment committee in North Shewa.This area here used to be very dusty. Now, a lot of good things have happened to us. We collect firewood from the protected areas, and we don’t have to buy it anymore. After our SLM training, we now harvest sorghum, beans, red pepper, cabbage, and other plants from our gardens, so we don’t have to buy food anymore. We just eat from our backyards using the skills SLM has given us. Source: Land for life
- Financing Land Restoration - Making the Stimulus Green
Countries are responding to the economic impacts of the pandemic with the greatest expenditure of public resources the world has ever seen, so it is only right that this spending goes to ensure that everyone in society benefits.
The greatest benefit to all people is to reduce the impacts of the land, climate and biodiversity crises by spending on land restoration, renewable energy, biodiversity, water and waste management, infrastructure and resource efficiency
Ecosystem Restoration Fund – expands tree planting to increase protected areas by 50 per cent.
- It creates 5 000 jobs for youth, who will be trained to become guardians and custodians of nature. Debt for nature swap scheme – targets USD one billion in funding from renegotiating Pakistan’s debt to support green economic recovery efforts.
- It will pilot an impact-based nature bond linked to verified biodiversity protection.
- Green euro bond – USD 500 million bond on international capital markets to shift from coal towards renewable energy for a 60 per cent clean energy mix by 2030 (Restored Land, Healthy People, Green Recovery. Build Forward Better with Land-Centered Solutions UNCCD)
- Everyone has much to gain. Everyone has a role to play. Our collective future is at stake
Launched in 2020, the G20 Global Initiative on Reducing Land Degradation and Enhancing Conservation of Terrestrial Habitats also seeks to enhance collaboration among member and non-member countries to support current commitments for land protection, sustainable land management, and restoration.
It seeks additional voluntary commitments to contribute to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15, and target 15.3 to achieve land degradation neutrality.
- SDG 15: Life on land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
- SDG Target 15.3: By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world.
To date, over 125 countries have committed to set targets and measures to:
- Avoid land degradation through regulation and planning
- Reduce the impacts of land degradation through sustainable land and water management strategies and practices
- Reverse the processes and impacts of land degradation by restoring biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Restored Land. Healthy People. Green Recovery: Build Forward Better with Land-Centered Solutions UNCCD)
Land is our greatest ally this decade as we seek to undo the damage our species has wrought on the nature, and ourselves. But first we must restore it to full health.