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OPINION: We must change our relationship with land to solve climate and biodiversity crises

Monday, 9 September 2019 17:14 GMT

Nobutho Thethani harvests potatoes at her farm in Lawley informal settlement in the south of Johannesburg, South Africa, April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Communities are breaking down due to the loss of life and livelihoods from land degradation and drought

By Ibrahim Thiaw, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary and Cristiana Paşca Palmer, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Executive Secretary

Two major pieces of research reveal the clear and present danger biodiversity loss and climate change pose to the health, security and well-being of humanity.

The reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) also show that a healthier relationship with the land can dramatically reduce the risks.

Nature is kind and can recover, but only if we do not cross critical tipping points. The next two years offer an incredible opportunity to change our current trajectory.

For too long, humanity has sacrificed long-term stability and prosperity for short-term gains. The IPCC report tells us that we use three-quarters of the planet’s ice-free surface to feed, clothe and support ourselves. We aren’t managing this land well. The productivity of one in every four hectares of land is declining, impacting 3.2 billion people and undermining our ability to feed a rapidly growing population.

Meanwhile, agriculture, forestry and other land use are responsible for 23% of greenhouse gas emissions. IPBES is unequivocal that the expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the leading driver of land degradation. By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands.

On the biodiversity front, we may lose as many as 1 million species on our planet, largely due to habitat loss. Many ecosystems are declining by a minimum of 4% per decade. This will accelerate due to the impacts of climate change. As we lose biodiversity and ecosystems, we lose the food, water, energy, raw materials, climate regulation and cultural services they provide.

Just as worrying is the breakdown of communities due to the loss of life and livelihoods from land degradation and drought. Land degradation, in tandem with climate change and biodiversity loss, may force up to 700 million people to migrate by 2050. 

We cannot address the climate and biodiversity crises without action on land degradation and deforestation. This much is clear as we see fires burning in the Amazon, threatening the carbon stores and biodiversity of the rainforest. It may not be hitting the headlines, but there are even more fires burning in globally important forests in Angola and the DR Congo.

The knowledge and technologies to manage our lands sustainably exist. The science shows the potential of action.


What we need is the will to act. The first opportunity to show this will is the meeting under way in New Delhi at the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). In the last four years, 122 of the 169 countries affected by desertification, land degradation or drought have looked at national targets to rehabilitate lands. This shows a growing commitment to reverse land degradation. But much work remains.

Later in September, the UN Secretary-General is asking nations and businesses to promise stronger and more ambitious climate action at the Global Climate Action Summit in New York. The results will feed into the next round of climate change negotiations – led by UN Climate Change – in Santiago, Chile, this December. Increased climate ambition is absolutely essential, as current national climate change plans are nowhere close to meeting the Paris Agreement goal of stabilizing global temperatures at 1.5C.

Another crucial step is the post-2020 global framework on biodiversity. Governments are already working on this framework, which will set global goals for conserving and sustainably using biodiversity to succeed the Aichi Targets. Here, clear, measurable and easy-to-understand targets that promote transformative change are essential.

Each of these processes are important, but we need to think of them as one interconnected piece of work. Just as vital is ensuring the buy-in of the non-government actors. Environment ministers can set all the targets they like, but they will fail if the agriculture sector, for example, does not see the opportunities inherent in managing the land sustainably.

If we work together to harness the enormous positive potential of our lands, we can go a long way towards fixing the biodiversity and climate crises and ensuring a health, profitable future for humanity.