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Science can help UN action on land degradation

September 3, 2019

Forest fires, droughts, flashfloods and storms: Unusual trends are destroying lives and and making the public jittery because ignorance is no longer excusable, yet policy action seems too slow, writes Ibrahim Thiaw.

Mali Dürre verendetes Rind
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bothma

The science suggests there is a stronger link between the planet's warming and its changing weather patterns, and these trends are stronger where significant changes to the use of land have occurred. The international community has plenty of opportunities, over the next two years, to take decisive action to strengthen the resilience of communities and ecosystems, and move in the direction the public desires.

The first of those opportunities is the 14th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, taking place in New Delhi, India, this and next week.

It is the world's most powerful decision-making body on desertification, land degradation and drought, with two complementary mandates. It guides actions to avoid and reduce land degradation, which is a key source of our vulnerability to disasters. It also supports actions to recover degraded land and mitigate the impacts of drought.

Ibrahim Thiaw
Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Testing the planet's resilience

The political will to act will be tested and examined, coming as the Conference does, less than a month after the release of the first authoritative report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This, and four other recent scientific assessments, are crystal clear. We have transformed the land significantly, and are testing the limits of its resilience.

About 75 percent of the land has been altered from its natural state, often, unsustainably. In a mere 50 years, we have rendered 23 percent of previously productive land virtually useless. Our insatiable use of land resources, including food, water and energy may be contributing up to 37 percent (or a third) of the greenhouse gases warming the Earth.

As a result, 1.3 billion people now live off degraded land. Close to 1 million species are threatened with extinction. Over 3.2 billion people — about half of the global population — are affected by land degradation.

To expect a two-week conference to find a silver bullet for these these challenges may seem unrealistic. And yet I am hopeful.

Brasilien Waldbrände
Wildfires raging through the Amayon in August 2019 Image: picture-alliance/AP/E. Peres

Epic force for change

Hopeful because of the governments' rapid implementation of major decisions on drought and land degradation taken in the last four years. Five years ago, only three countries in the world had national plans to manage droughts effectively. Today, 70 countries have set up comparable plans.

I am hopeful because the decision-makers mandated to take action have shown a willingness to investigate emerging issues thoroughly and scientifically for appropriate action to be taken promptly.

I am also hopeful because the agenda of the Conference shows that there is a willingness among governments to find solutions to knotty issues, some of which have been put on the back burner for a long time.

Public jitters of any kind such as the Fridays for Future youth protests across the world signal a growing impatience with inaction. Every day of action or inaction counts for our survival.

Half of the ministers who can ensure land is used optimally will be in New Delhi. That's an epic force for change that can raise the bar in land use and management and set the tone for the related actions on climate change and biodiversity in the not-too-distant future.

Ibrahim Thiaw is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.