Land decay to displace tens of millions, global survey warns

Mariëtte Le Roux AFP Yahoo News 27 Mar 18;

Medellín (Colombia) (AFP) - Land degradation will unleash a mass migration of at least 50 million people by 2050 -- as many as 700 million unless humans stop depleting the life-giving resource, more than 100 scientists warned Monday

Already, land decay caused by unsustainable farming, mining, pollution, and city expansion is undermining the well-being of some 3.2 billion people -- 40 percent of the global population, they said in the first comprehensive assessment of land health.

Land depletion threatens food security for all Earth's citizens, and access to clean water and breathable air regulated by the soil and the plants that grow on it.

The condition of land is "critical," alerted the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

"We've converted large amounts of our forests, we've converted large amounts of our grasslands, we've lost 87 percent of our wetlands... we've really changed our land surface in the last several hundred years," IPBES chairman Robert Watson said.

"Land degradation, loss of productivity of those soils and those vegetations will force people to move. It will be no longer viable to live on those lands," he told AFP.

The lowest number of 50 million migrants is a best case scenario.

It assumes "we've really tried hard to have sustainable agricultural practices, sustainable forestry, we've tried to minimize climate change," Watson explained.

The high projection is based on a "business-as-usual" approach in which rampant global warming wreaks havoc with the land -- fueling desertification and drought.

- Last frontier -

By 2050, said the analysis, land degradation and climate change will reduce crop yields by 10 percent globally -- up to half in some regions.

The report covers the entirety of Earth's land, as well as the lakes and rivers it supports.

It estimated that land degradation cost the equivalent of 10 percent of global economic output in 2010.

"Every five percent loss of gross domestic product... is associated with a 12 percent increase in the likelihood of violent conflict," warned the report.

Already, in dryland areas, years of extremely low rainfall see an estimated 45 percent rise in violent conflict.

The main drivers of land degradation, said the assessment, were "high-consumption lifestyles" in rich countries, and rising demand for products in developing ones, fuelled by income and population growth.

Less than a quarter of land has managed to escape "substantial impacts" of human activity -- primarily because it is found in inhospitable parts of the world -- too cold, too high, too dry, or too wet for humans to live in.

Even this small repository is projected to shrink to less than 10 percent in just 30 years' time.

"People are pushing into those frontiers," Bob Scholes of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, a co-author of the paper, told AFP.

Global warming permits people to move into the icy, subarctic Boreal region, for example, while technology now allows us to pump water from deep aquifers in the extreme desert.

Crop and grazing lands now cover more than a third of the Earth's land surface.

This means not only a loss of soil, but also populations of wild plants and animals, and forests that suck up planet-warming carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

"Biodiversity loss is projected to reach 38-46 percent by 2050," said the report, warning that Earth is in the beginnings of a sixth mass extinction -- the first since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The IPBES assessment took global experts three years to compile, analyzing all the available scientific data.

- Climate change -

The report identified land degradation as a major contributor to climate change, and vice versa.

Deforestation alone contributes about 10 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

And by releasing carbon once locked in the soil, land decay was responsible for global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year between 2000 and 2009.

"Without urgent action, further losses of 36 gigatons of carbon from soils -- especially from sub-Saharan Africa -- is projected by 2050," the scientists warned.

This is equal to about 20 years of global transport emissions.

In 30 years from now, an estimated four billion people -- about 40 percent of the projected population -- will live in arid and semi-arid areas with low agriculture productivity, said the report.

Today, the number is just over three billion.

The assessment "is a wakeup call for us all," said Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which requested the report.

"It shows the alarming scale of transformation that humankind has imposed on the land."

The report, which cost about $1 million (810,000 euros) to prepare, is meant to inform government policy-making.

It was approved by government envoys at a week-long meeting of the 129-member IPBES in Medellin.

Land degradation threatens human wellbeing, major report warns
More than 3.2bn people are already affected and the problem will worsen without rapid action, driving migration and conflict
Jonathan Watts The Guardian 26 Mar 18;

Land degradation is undermining the wellbeing of two-fifths of humanity, raising the risks of migration and conflict, according to the most comprehensive global assessment of the problem to date.

The UN-backed report underscores the urgent need for consumers, companies and governments to rein in excessive consumption – particularly of beef – and for farmers to draw back from conversions of forests and wetlands, according to the authors.

With more than 3.2 billion people affected, this is already one of the world’s biggest environmental problems and it will worsen without rapid remedial action, according to Robert Scholes, co-chair of the assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “As the land base decreases and populations rise, this problem will get greater and harder to solve,” he said.

The IPBES study, launched in Medellín on Monday after approval by 129 national governments and three years of work by more than 100 scientists, aims to provide a global knowledge base about a threat that is less well-known than climate change and biodiversity loss, but closely connected to both and already having a major economic and social impact.

The growing sense of alarm was apparent last year when scientists warned fertile soil was being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, largely due to unsustainable agricultural practices.

The new assessment goes further by looking at vegetation loss, forest clearance, wetland drainage, grassland conversion, urban sprawl and pollution, as well as how these changes affect human health, wealth and happiness.

Drawing on more than 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources, the authors estimate land degradation costs more than 10% of annual global GDP in lost ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and agricultural productivity. They say it can raise the risks of flooding, landslides and diseases such as Ebola and the Marburg virus.

There are also geopolitical implications. The authors cite evidence of a strong association between land degradation, migration and instability. In dryland regions, years of extremely low rainfall have been associated with an up to 45% rise in violent conflict. Depending on the actions taken by governments to address climate change and the decline in soil quality, the authors estimate between 50 to 700 million people could be driven from their homes by 2050. The worst affected areas are likely to be the dry fringes of southern Iraq, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.

To counter this, the authors call for coordination among ministries to encourage sustainable production and for the elimination of agricultural subsidies that promote land degradation. They urge consumers to reduce waste and be more thoughtful about what they eat. Vegetables have a much lower impact on land than beef. Farmers are encouraged to raise productivity rather than clear more land. Companies and governments are advised to accelerate efforts to rehabilitate land. There have been several successful projects on China’s Loess plateau, in the Sahel and in South Africa.

The economic case for land restoration is strong, according to the report, which says benefits (such as jobs and business spending) are 10 times higher than costs, and up to three times higher than price of inaction. But in most regions, remedial work is overdue. National governments are not living up to a global commitment to neutral land degradation by 2030.

Participants compared the rundown of land to the 2008 financial crisis. “Back then, people borrowed more money than they could repay. Now we are borrowing from nature at a rate that is many times higher than the world can sustain. The day of reckoning will come,” said Christian Steel, director of Sabima, a Norwegian biodiversity NGO. In Europe, he said, the industrialisation of forest and agriculture is degrading the land. “We are also importing more food and, by doing so, displacing the impact of our consumption. We are fooling ourselves. Disaster doesn’t hit suddenly like in a Hollywood movie. It is already happening gradually.”

Action has been held back by a lack of awareness of the problem and the often wide gulf between consumers and producers. The report notes that many of those who benefit from over-exploitation of natural resources are among the least affected by the direct negative impacts of land degradation and therefore have the least incentive to take action.

“This is extremely urgent,” said another of the co-chairs, Luca Montanarella. “If we don’t change lifestyles, consumption habits and the way we use land, then sooner or later we are going to destroy this planet. Looking for another one is not an option.”

The land degradation assessment is the latest in a recent suite of global studies that highlight the deterioration of humanity’s home. In 2016, IPBES highlighted the demise of the planet’s pollinators, which are vital for agricultural production. On Friday, it released a global biodiversity study that warned human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding provision of food, water and security to billions of people.

Separately, the United Nations last week released a global water study that forecast more than half of the human population could struggle to secure supplies for drinking, cooking and sanitation for at least one month a year by 2050 as a result of pollution, climate change and rising demand.