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Nations challenged to restore land fertility

Land degradation from farming, logging, mining and other human activities adds to the climate crisis and costs the world up to 17% of global GDP.

Land degradation from farming, logging, mining and other human activities adds to the climate crisis and costs the world up to 17% of global GDP, a U.N. official who heads a major treaty intended to prevent more land from turning into desert landscapes said on Friday.

Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, or UNCCD, told reporters on the sidelines of a major summit in New Delhi, India from September 2-13 that efforts to restore land can dramatically improve people's livelihoods by reducing economic and climate risks.

"This is not a local issue. It is purely global. A sand and dust storm is known by many words in many parts of the world," Thiaw said, referring to storms last year that affected northern India, the Aral Sea and Europe. Each year, he said, about 70 nations, including many of the world's poorest areas, grapple with drought.

Desertification alone generates a loss between 10% and 17% of the global GDP, Thiaw said during a press briefing via video-link ahead of the U.N. summit's high-level segment of talks on desertification next week that will be hosted and inaugurated by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Thiaw cited Food and Agriculture Organization statistics showing that 99.7% of the food that people eat worldwide comes from land-based sources; just 0.3% comes from oceans and other aquatic ecosystems.

"In very simple terms, the message is to say: Invest in land restoration as a way of improving livelihoods and reducing vulnerabilities contributing to climate change and reducing risks for the economy," said Thiaw.

Land degradation could cost the world economy US$23 trillion by 2050, according to treaty figures, including average losses equivalent to 9% of GDP for the 21 nations that UNCCD's research partners studied closely. Some of the worst affected countries, such as Central African Republic, could see 40% losses, while Asia and Africa stand to bear the highest costs: US$84 billion a year and US$65 billion a year, respectively.

Of land, gender and climate

Among the more challenging issues facing the summit are drought and gender equality. One of the UNCCD's goals is to achieve "land degradation neutrality" through sustainable management and land use planning. In 2017, the treaty added a "gender action plan" to support more women participating in crafting and implementing land and natural resource use policies.

Globally, at least 169 countries are affected by land degradation and/or drought, treaty officials say. At least 116 countries say they are committed to achieving the "neutrality" goal that aligns with the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. They include measures to address poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, peace and justice.

The summit was expected to draw almost 9,000 participants from 196 nations and the European Union, including more than half of the government ministers in charge of land issues. Participants were expected to adopt a "New Delhi Declaration" on combating desertification that would contribute to related efforts sought from nations attending the U.N. Climate Action Summit scheduled for September 23.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the climate summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. He expects world leaders to bring concrete, realistic national plans for taking action starting in 2020 that will collectively reduce the world's greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade, and result in net zero emissions by 2050.

Thiaw, a forestry and conservation expert, witnessed first-hand the effects of severe drought on his family and community during the 1970s in Tékane, Mauritania, in the Sahel semi-arid region south of the Sahara. Thiaw was appointed to be a U.N. undersecretary-general and the executive secretary of the UNCCD in January.

He has spent much of his professional career on land degradation. Last year, he was a special adviser to Guterres for the Sahel region. Thiaw also has been a U.N. assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of U.N. Environment, and before that he spent 10 years in Mauritania's rural development ministry.

"The good news is that the science and technology is there to actually reduce land degradation," he said. "Land restoration is being done in many parts of the world and, by restoring land, we basically are able to mitigate climate change. It is estimated that 30% of the emissions can be fixed through land restoration."