By 2050, 90% of land could become degraded. How can businesses help restore the resources they depend upon?

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Trees grown in dry, cracked, dry soil in the dry season,global warming
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17 Jan 2022

  1. Ibrahim ThiawUndersecretary-General of the United Nations; Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

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This article is part of the The Davos Agenda

  • Currently, one in every five hectares of land on Earth is unusable and by 2050 only 10% of land could be healthy.
  • Businesses are failing to help protect the resources of healthy ecosystems they depend upon such as land for farming.
  • The good news is that initiatives like The Great Green Wall are proving that action can be taken now to reverse land degradation.

In 2022, fifty years after the birth of the environmental movement in Stockholm, action on everything from climate change to protecting nature must accelerate to avoid looming chaos and damage to societies, economies and businesses. Reversing land degradation is one of the best and most wide-ranging methods to get the job done, as we are already seeing through a massive land restoration project in the Sahel – the Great Green Wall.

How many of us make the connection between fashion and land? Or the links between the quality of the water we drink, the air we breathe and the health of our ecosystems? Or the quality of the food we eat and the health of our soil? How many businesses have done a stress test of their new investments, integrating the long-term risks associated with land degradation or drought?

Land degradation is bad for business

Land degradation has long been neglected – as if we have infinite productive land we can turn to any time we degrade our farmlands. Nature has so far been generous. But how much time is left before we deplete our natural capital? Before we transform Earth into a lunar landscape?

Already today, one in every five hectares of land on our planet is unusable. By 2050, only 10% of land could be healthy, intact and resilient. This will spell disaster for businesses. It’s really very simple: keep damaging the land, and profits will fall. We are talking major disruption in everything from basic resources, to food and beverages and construction materials.

A lot of this damage occurred because political will has been lacking. But businesses need to look at their own responsibility. The private sector has focused on short-term gains. It has long failed to understand negative externalities. It has mostly failed to reflect on the value of land, and the impacts unsustainable practices have on land, in market prices.

If business leaders keep failing in this regard, they will fail in every regard – and not just because of the direct impacts on supply chains. Consumers worried about their future are starting to shun unsustainable companies. It’s time for business to start succeeding by looking at the long-term opportunities of prioritising healthy land.

What are the benefits of healthy land?

Land restoration cannot do it all. But restoring land to health can deliver huge benefits across the board. Land restoration, with a ballpark cost of $500 per hectare, is one of the most cost-effective ways to combat business risks. Restoring just 350 million hectares of degraded land could, by 2030, remove greenhouse gases roughly equal to half the world’s annual emissions from the atmosphere. Restoring land can earn an extra $1.4 trillion in agricultural production every year.

Focusing on regenerative land use is an opportunity to safeguard businesses from the impacts of climate change and land degradation. Restoring ecosystems and soil biodiversity is among the most effective weapons against weather extremes. Restoring land can create employment and help a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the US, first movers have demonstrated that under certain conditions, farms with regenerative practices are an estimated 78% more profitable than those using conventional practices.

How land restoration action cuts across and impacts sectors: 'Restored Land, Healthy People, Green Recovery', Figure 3, May 2021. Source: UNCCD Solution Brief.
How land restoration action cuts across and impacts sectors: ‘Restored Land, Healthy People, Green Recovery’, Figure 3, May 2021. Source: UNCCD Solution Brief.

The shift towards more sustainable production also opens up new opportunities for the private sector. New market trends are emerging in plant-based proteins, precision agriculture and the shift from chemical to plant-based fertilizer and pesticides – all of which are emerging market opportunities with a clear positive impact on soil health.

How can we achieve it?

Protecting, restoring and managing the land requires a shift in the way the world thinks, invests and consumes. Policies and regulatory frameworks need to be geared towards regeneration. Consumption patterns need to be tackled. Investment decisions need to push from sustainability to regeneration and include longer time spans for return on investments.

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is collaborating with the private sector to bring about this shift. The UNCCD spearheaded the establishment of the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund – an impact investment fund blending resources from the public, private and philanthropic sectors to support Sustainable Development Goal 15 in developing countries.

The Great Green Wall initiative in the Sahel – an integrated ecosystem management programme – is striving for a mosaic of different land use and production systems across the width of the African continent. It is already supporting youth employment, creation of value chains, revenue generation and access to renewable energy in rural areas, while returning millions of hectares of degraded land to health.

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The UNCCD is also working with corporate partners to transform drylands through a market-driven, sustainable and ethical supply chain model that helps to restore soil health and protect lands. At COP15 – in May 2022, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire – participants will undoubtedly investigate sustainable production of commodities.

We will work with nations – and indeed corporations – to help deliver on commitments to restore up to one billion hectares of land. The G20 Initiative on Land Restoration is particularly relevant in that regard. And we want to work more with the private sector, because we can only succeed with the full support of all actors and activities driving land degradation.

So, my message to businesses is simple: if you aren’t involved, get involved. If you are making promises, step up with action. Refocusing your business practices to back healthy land will help us all prosper, perhaps you most of all. and RepublishingWritten by

Ibrahim Thiaw, Undersecretary-General of the United Nations; Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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