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Supporting the Global Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Land-based Solutions for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet.

Land is the foundation for all life on Earth. How land is used and managed influences nature, food, water, energy, climate, and even our health. Today, the pressures on land and the wealth of resources it provides are greater than at any other time in human history.

  • Nearly three quarters of the Earth’s ice-free land has been transformed from its natural state, mainly to meet the demand for food, raw materials and human settlement.
  • Even more alarming is the accelerated pace of land conversion, in order to provide the food, animal feed, fiber, bioenergy and water needed to achieve all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Over the past 50 years, industrial production, technological development and our changing consumption patterns have significantly altered all ecosystems, putting over 1 million species at risk.

Since late 2019, the world has been struggling to contain an outbreak of a new zoonotic virus commonly called COVID-19, and the repercussions have been colossal. Beyond the devastating public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved into a complex emergency with significant humanitarian, socio-economic, political and security dimensions. It has laid bare the vulnerability of both our human and natural systems, which were already threatened by climate change.

On the economic front, recession and the contraction of per capita income is taking place in more countries simultaneously than at any other point since 1870.

  • The pandemic poses a real challenge to the global goal of ending poverty by 2030 (SDG 1) , which is now projected to increase for the first time since 1990.
  • Poor, marginalized communities, without any support or safety net, are particularly vulnerable, and the number suffering from hunger could go from 135 million to more than 250 million people.
  • The agricultural labor force is buckling under the strain of the lockdown response to the pandemic and almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers are significantly impacted.
  • The resilience of global systems in most sectors has taken a tremendous hit, leading to dramatic swings in commodity markets and serious food supply chain disruptions,
  • a sharp contraction in remittances—the largest source of foreign exchange earnings for emerging markets and developing countries,
  • and even signs of reverse migration between countries and from urban back to rural areas.
  • The pandemic-driven economic crisis itself brings impacts on human health that extend beyond the pandemic itself.

The Solution – Safeguarding people’s lives and their livelihoods, keeping the land in balance

Faced with an increasingly uncertain future, as a global community, it is crucial that we take steps to reduce the risk of future pandemics and find ways to recover the lost resilience in our global systems. Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems is crucial for avoiding the well-understood risks of the emergence of novel infectious diseases.

Moreover, land is the key to building back better: Avoiding future degradation and reversing harm from the past can accelerate the progress on all 17 SDGs in the face of both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

That is why the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is clear:

  • We are calling on all members of the global community to treat the land as a limited and precious natural capital.
  • Land degradation is to be avoided, reduced and reversed to sustain a healthy planet and to deliver opportunities and essential benefits for all people, particularly women, youth and the rural poor.

This document aims to explain the work of the UNCCD, drawing on relevant developments in policy and practical examples of actions that can be to tackle land degradation and drought with a view to enhancing human health and wellbeing in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

1. Principles for action: UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework

UNCCD prioritizes human wellbeing and health through combatting desertification, land degradation and mitigating the effects of drought.

The UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework reaffirms this commitment, with objectives that emphasize ecosystem and community resilience, and the living conditions of affected populations. The expected impacts of the Strategic Framework are equally relevant. People living in areas affected by desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) will have an improved and more resilient livelihood base and will secure long-term benefits while the resilience of ecosystems is increased. The socioeconomic and environmental vulnerability of affected populations to climate change, climate variability and drought is also expected to be reduced. The UNCCD Strategic Framework also contributes to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular regarding Sustainable Development Goal 15 and target 15.3: “by 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world”.

2. Addressing the primary drivers of COVID-19 while strengthening the resilience of our communities

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), whether people are healthy or not, is determined by their circumstances and environment.

In many parts of the world, land is the most important asset for people, and land-based solutions that foster health and biodiversity offer innovative ways to tackle the pandemic. Land can play a key role in the prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery phases of the COVID-19 crisis. The response areas identified below offer ways in which Parties can address health and its determinants and make investments for health through evidence-informed policies across sectors

2.1 Prevention and preparedness Prevention by addressing the primary environmental driver of emerging infectious disease outbreaks.

Land conversion for food production and urban expansion has increased the exposure of humans to viruses, increasing the risk of zoonotic disease emergence. Avoiding land degradation, improving the condition of affected ecosystems through sustainable land management and restoring or rehabilitating what has already been lost can prevent outbreaks, limit the negative impact on people by building resilience and helping ensure food security

2.2. Response and recovery Response by reducing the crisis’ impact on the most vulnerable people.

The COVID-19 crisis is hitting national economies hard; the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs will have been lost globally by the end of the 2nd quarter of 2020 (10.5% lower than in the last pre-crisis quarter). For many extended families around the world, healthy land acts as a safety net in times of crisis, including sustenance. In times of crisis, it is crucial to secure availability of and access to healthy land for the most vulnerable.

3. Playing our part  

UNCCD response to COVID-19 Faced with a global COVID-19 crisis, we need concerted action to foster human health and healthy ecosystems—our life support system.

To help address the COVID-19 crisis, and to identify and prepare for elements for further consideration by UNCCD Parties, the Convention Secretariat and the Global Mechanism are focusing their response around the following framework for action comprising three tracks, namely

(i) addressing the health dimensions of the global crisis, (ii) safeguarding people’s lives and their livelihoods and (iii) building back better, smarter and stronger. 

Track 1: addressing the health dimensions of the global crisis. UNCCD calls for environmental action to drive positive transformative change for people, beginning with raising awareness of the linkages between health and environment.

Lack of awareness of land degradation and its drivers and impacts can become a barrier to action. If we understand the link, we can limit the primary pathway of zoonotic disease transmission as well as reduce the social and economic impacts of a global pandemic.

Track 2: safeguarding people’s lives and their livelihoods to help mitigate the impact of the crisis, particularly in fragile states.

Land acts as a safety net, particularly for the most vulnerable people, including women and youth. Integrated land use planning, land restoration, sustainable land management, and protecting natural areas are among the best responses to the socio-economic crisis facing humanity today. Gender-responsive planning and implementation can help policymakers build a bridge between urban and rural systems (e.g., food production and consumption) and shorten supply chains that are exposed by this crisis. The UNCCD encourages the setting of voluntary land degradation neutrality targets that achieve multiple benefits, build resilience and encourage landscape, regional, national SLM and restoration

There is no hierarchy in this approach; all three tracks would need to be tackled simultaneously as they touch upon the prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery phases of the crisis.

Track 3: moving away from the business-as-usual mindset to build back better, smarter and stronger.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that changes in society can occur in a relatively short period of time offering the prospect for a normative structural reset. Post-coronavirus economic recovery stimulus measures and packages will lock in choices and set a long-term trajectory for policy and investment. People and nature must be at the centre of this deep transformation of the global system. Investments and incentives that focus on restoring a lasting balance between people, prosperity and our planetary boundaries give us the best shot at long term preparedness and resilience, especially for the poorest. The Global Mechanism mobilizes resources to support the implementation of the Convention, assisting countries to identify, access, combine and sequence environmental finance, including through the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and other bilateral and multilateral donor and private sector funding

The Aspirations – Building back better

1. Shaping a social contract for nature

This document summarized how land degradation, biodiversity, human health and climate change are interdependent challenges taking place at multiple scales.

  • Their interdependence puts into sharp focus the importance of a holistic response. While awareness is growing, our commitment to sustainable solutions needs to be intensified. As does our understanding of how solutions can be leveraged so that we respond to and recover from the COVID-19 crisis and at the same time reduce the risk of future pandemics. Acting together to tackle land degradation represents tremendous untapped ) potential.
  • With forward-looking policies, targeted finance and incentives, and strong political will, the potential of integrated land use planning, sustainable land management and restoration can be fully unleashed. We will leave no one behind. Citizens can be provided with jobs, food security and resilience to future shocks and stresses. Citizens can enjoy a sense of purpose and dignity in an uncertain world. Land-based and nature-based solutions offer a viable pathway towards regenerating our communities, societies, and regional economies. To make this happen, the time has come for a new social contract for nature.
  • We will need to build bridges and establish partnerships between stakeholders. Synergies between the three Rio Conventions and related environmental and development organizations are essential. Everyone has a role to play and everyone has a stake in the game.
  • A Social Contract for Nature involves bold action on the ground. Each of us can contribute directly or encourage our leaders to stop the loss of natural capital: avoiding future land degradation and land use change, and reducing and reversing existing land degradation to protect our natural and working landscapes. This in turn will also cut climate change and biodiversity loss, reduce the emergence of zoonosis and support community resilience. Maintaining the sustainable delivery of ecosystem services from the land is a critical building block for life in harmony with nature.

2. Going beyond business-as-usual

Such a social contract for nature would mean measures to build back stronger, smarter, safer. To build a world that is green, just and resilient:

  • Investing in research and development as well as innovations in the environment and health nexus to better understand how anthropogenic environmental change is affecting human health, through both short-term and direct pathways such as SDS and long-term and complex pathways such as climate change or biodiversity loss.
  • Enhancing coherence and synergies among the many actors involved in the knowledge base, policy responses, and practices on these issues is urgently needed. New models of governance could be adopted between national and local levels and across sectors. Spatial planning and risk prevention policies as well as technical measures to combine conventional engineering (e.g. raising dikes) with nature-based solutions (e.g. making room for rivers) make sense. If carried out properly, such projects can be highly efficient and cost-effective and have multiple benefits – for example, building parks that cool cities in the summer, which can boost human wellbeing and contribute to biodiversity conservation.
  • The full involvement of all stakeholders, including women, children according to their evolving capacities, young people, elderly persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and local communities is indispensable. Youth as the torchbearers of the 2030 Agenda have a pivotal role to play both as beneficiaries of actions and policies under the Convention and as partners and participants in its implementation. Land- and ecosystem restoration can be an important building block to engage youth in sustainable development, delivering immediate outcomes and a longer-term sense of hope for youth at risk. 
  • Innovation and technology transfer: around the globe, fast advancing technologies shape production and consumption, and drive patterns of land use and terrestrial ecosystems at various scales. Research found that across the SDGs and their 169 targets, 70 per cent of the targets could be enabled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution technology applications already in deployment.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) brings with it an ability to optimize systems through automating, assisting, augmenting and ultimately creating autonomous systems to execute decision making without human intervention. Levers such as agricultural robotics are key in achieving the projected reductions in GHG emissions as they reduce fossil fuel usage in agricultural activities. AI tools for land use planning are also very important in reducing emissions as they optimize the use of, and help protect, natural resources such as forests. Besides emissions, these applications minimize the negative environmental effects associated with the overuse of inputs such as water and chemicals. For example, precision monitoring in agriculture can enable savings of specific inputs such as fertilizers and water used for irrigation, and AI levers in the water sector alone could also boost global GDP by $190 billion by 2030.
  • The creation of a broader ecosystem that focuses on harnessing technology to tackle environmental challenges and decrease the gender gap in access to information and technology, would be a valuable and much-needed step.
  • Reimagining financial systems: developing and implementing innovative financial instruments and enhancing the involvement of business, civil society and citizens in policymaking for environmental protection. Private and public sources for funding landscape restoration are needed to go to scale and leapfrog implementation with a view to creating land-based green jobs and strengthening the resilience of rural communities across the region, particularly to address the post-COVID-19.
  • Green bonds are increasingly used in landscape restoration while more recently large sovereign and pension funds are moving towards decarbonizing their investments. Along with increasing philanthropic investments, these private finance options offer great opportunities for landscape restoration. A mix of funding cross sector public sources could also be envisaged.
  • Options to redirect subsidies and tax incentives that promote restoration such as the creation of innovative financing mechanisms, like public private partnerships (PPP) or payment for ecosystem services, that are locally appropriate and can be taken to large scale or that secure cross financing of restoration activities (e.g. through fees, charges, deposits, funds etc.) can also be developed and deployed.
  • Fostering an enabling environment: as good governance of land resources is indispensable, achieving land tenure security can form the backbone of an effective approach. When all other aspects of the enabling environment are considered and addressed in a coordinated way, land tenure security can increase the resilience of populations and ecosystems.
  • The promotion of gender equality in terms of land rights and security remains one of the most obvious quick wins for restoration and multiple SDGs. At the same time, the capacity of land administrations to facilitate integrated land use planning needs to be strengthened or built, in many countries. Such an increase in capacity will help managing tradeoffs and synergies with other land-based targets and improve coordination.
  • Leveraging the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and Decade of Action for the SDGs: based on reports to the from UNCCD governments, it is estimated that over 20% of the earth’s terrestrial cover has been degraded. As land degradation is responsible for a quarter of global CO2 emissions (3.6–4.4 billion tonnes), the IPCC underlines that land-based actions could contribute to approximately 25 to 30 per cent of the climate change solution if other sectors continue to maintain their ambition.35It is estimated that farmland restoration applied on 172 million hectares could generate 14.08 gigatons reduced CO2 by 2050.
  • The upcoming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals in combination with various other initiatives such as Land Degradation Neutrality target setting and implementation, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs – Paris Agreement) , National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), the Bonn Challenge (including, among others, the New York Declaration on Forests, the Initiative 20x20, and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative), offer a unique opportunity for fundamental change.

Taken together, and taking into consideration different methods for overlap, the total global commitments for restoration range from around 700 to 950 million hectares

Both documents  "Supporting the Global Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Land-based Solutions for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet (the report)" and " UNCCD and the COVID-19 crisis: land-based solutions for healthy people and a sustainable planet ( the brief),  referenced above you may wish to find here

  Further reading from UNCCD Library: