Up to 40% of the world’s land is degraded by humans, UN report warns

“In a world of profligate consumerism, global supply chains, and a growing population, land resources—our soil, water, and biodiversity – are rapidly being depleted."

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Human activity has degraded as much as 40 percent of the world’s land, impacting half of the people on Earth and putting about half of global gross domestic product at risk.

That’s the stark finding of the Global Land Outlook 2, a new report from the UN’s Council to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). With more than 1,000 references and the support of 21 partner organizations, the publication is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the state of the world’s land, and it offers both a dire warning and promising solutions. 

“In a world of profligate consumerism, global supply chains, and a growing population, land resources – our soil, water, and biodiversity – are rapidly being depleted. As a finite resource and our most valuable natural asset, we can no longer afford to take land for granted. We must move to a crisis footing to address the challenge and make land the focus,” UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw wrote in a foreword to the new report.  

Mining vs. managing 

More than 70 percent of the Earth’s land has been altered by human activity, and up to 40 percent is degraded, meaning that it has become less biologically or economically productive over a sustained period of time. Land degradation increases poverty and pollution and puts the people who live on or near it at risk for diseases and disasters. 

One major driver of this degradation is the global food system, which is the leading cause of land-based biodiversity loss and is also behind 80 percent of deforestation and 70 percent of freshwater use. Yet UNCCD members emphasized that the main problem was not any particular type of land use, but rather the dominant economy’s overall attitude towards land. 

“We have been mining land, we have not been managing it,” Thiaw told reporters in a Wednesday press conference. 

He defined mining as a linear approach that favored using and discarding resources, while managing would mean a more circular approach that uses and reuses resources sustainably.

“It is the way that our economy is shaped right now,” UNCCD Deputy Executive Secretary Andrea Meza Murillo agreed.

In an interview with EcoWatch, UNCCD lead scientist Barron Joseph Orr said that the land-use conversation had moved on from 10 years ago, when it had focused on single direct drivers like overgrazing. 

“We know now that the cup of coffee that you or I may have had this morning may have contributed to land degradation somewhere very far away, as is true for almost everything that we eat, that we wear, etc.,” he said. “And so unsustainable consumption and production is probably the underlying, major indirect driver.”

Three scenarios 

The new report outlined three scenarios for how humanity might respond to this land-use crisis and what their impact would be by 2050. 

  1. Business-as-usual: If we continue with current consumption and production patterns, we will lose an additional 16 million square kilometers (approximately six million square miles) of land by 2050, an area the size of South America. Further, land-use change and soil degradation will pump an additional 69 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the growth in crop yields will decrease and biodiversity loss will continue. 
  2. Restoration: If we restore five billion hectares – 35 percent of the Earth’s land area – through measures like conservation agriculture, agroforestry and improved grazing, this will increase carbon stocks by 17 gigatonnes, increase crop yields by five to 10 percent in most developing countries compared to the first scenario and prevent 11 percent of biodiversity loss predicted in the first scenario. 
  3. Restoration and Protection: This scenario builds on the restoration scenario with the additional protection of areas important for biodiversity, water, soil and carbon storage. Together, the measures would impact nearly half of the Earth’s land area, storing an additional 83 gigatonnes of carbon and reducing projected biodiversity loss by one third. However, in order to feed the world’s population, agricultural yields would have to increase by nine percent compared to the business-as-usual scenario. 

All of these scenarios illustrate one of the report’s major messages: that land degradation is intimately linked to all of the other environmental and social crises facing humanity today.

“What’s really important about this report is that it brings together that we have to look at nature, people, climate, water, etc. – all together,” Orr told EcoWatch. “That you can’t anymore deal with these in separate ways, and, at the same time, it makes it clear that land is underneath all of these, and if you do well with land, you can make a difference in all of those categories through restoration.” 

‘Enabling environment‘

If the problems surrounding land-use change are all interconnected, the solutions also require a holistic approach. The report called for an “enabling environment” in which governments, financial institutions, businesses, scientists and local communities all work together to restore land. 

Orr said that restoration must also look beyond single acts of conservation to consider a systemic approach that decides where it is best to build a biodiversity corridor or launch a climate mitigation project. He offered the example of Africa’s Great Green Wall, which focuses on land restoration in the Sahel covering 8,000 kilometers (approximately 4,971 miles) and 11 countries. 

“In recent years, the vision has evolved from a tree-planting program to an integrated ecosystem management approach, striving to optimize a mosaic of different land use systems,” the report wrote.

On a global level, UN Sustainable Development Goal Target 15.3 has called for Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) by 2030, which is defined by the UNCCD as  “a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security remain stable or increase within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems,” according to the report. Currently, land restoration targets made by 115 countries, nearly half of them LDN targets, would restore a total of one billion hectares. 

The report also joined with the emerging scientific consensus that protecting the land rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities is essential for protecting the land itself. 

“In the face of rising threats to tropical forests — UN and other climate and biodiversity experts have begun to argue for expanding the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities and for drawing on their traditional knowledge as a proven solution for protecting intact ecosystems,” General Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “The new global land report for the first time recommends scaling up the land rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities – not just as a climate solution — but as a means for ensuring the success of projects to restore nature.”

The report comes at an opportune time to make a difference. It was released weeks ahead of the UNCCD’s 15th session of the Conference of Parties in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in May and in the first year of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. 

“It will not be the end all of all that comes out on this, but it certainly will generate a lot of energy and movement,” Orr said. 


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