Land degradation now threatens the lives and livelihoods of 40 percent of world population, some 3 billion people give or take, according to a landmark, three-year, global assessment produced by the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
More than 1.5 billion hectares (3.705 billion acres) of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands and more than 75 percent of the Earth's land surface had suffered severely as a result of human activity as of 2014, IPBES highlights. Experts estimate that less than one-tenth of the Earth's land surface will have escaped substantial impacts of human activity come 2050.
In terms of dollars and cents, human degradation of land and the resulting loss of biodiversity and fundamental ecosystem services cost the equivalent of an estimated 10 percent of annual global gross domestic product (around US$8 billion), according to the report, which was approved at the sixth session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellin, Colombia this past week. A total of 129 UN member nations are party to the international treaty.
A landmark global ecosystems assessment, and urgent warning
Surveying the health and integrity of land worldwide, IPBES scientists and researchers found the loss of critical ecosystem services – food security, water purification, energy and other products and services essential to supporting life – due to land degradation has reached critical levels in many parts of the world.
It's causing mass human migration and increased conflict, as well as causing massive species extinction and intensifying climate change, according to the 100 leading experts from 45 countries that contributed to the report. They drew on more than 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources in producing the peer-reviewed report.
Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of crop and grazing lands is the most prominent driver of land degradation worldwide, the study authors found.
“Wetlands have been particularly hard hit,” IPBES co-chair Luca Montanarella highlighted. Eight-seven percent have been lost worldwide since the start of the modern era, 54 percent since 1900, according to the report.
“Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth, and to ensure human well-being,” Montanarella stated.
Prognosis: Not good
Land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and forests are all symptoms of land degradation and the loss of essential natural resources and ecosystem services, the global ecosystems assessment explains.
High consumption lifestyles and disregard for the environmental impacts of production, use and disposal of products and services lie at the root of the problem, according to the report. “High and rising per capita consumption, amplified by continued population growth in many parts of the world, can drive unsustainable levels of agricultural expansion, natural resource and mineral extraction, and urbanization – typically leading to greater levels of land degradation.”
Curtailing destruction of natural ecosystems that result from agricultural expansion is achievable by increasing yields on existing farmlands, shifting dietary habits towards those that result in less land degradation, such as more plant-based foods and less animal protein from unsustainable sources, according to the report. Problems can also be avoided by investing to improve food loss and waste.
“Through this report, the global community of experts has delivered a frank and urgent warning, with clear options to address dire environmental change, IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson said.
“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment.
“We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.”
*Images credit: IPBES via Shutterstock