[Interview] “Avoiding the risk of land degradation is fundamental to any response to climate change”

Thar desert near Jaisalmer. Photo by Sampa Guha Majumdar/Wikimedia Commons.

  • The 14th Conference of Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) will be held in New Delhi this year.
  • Lead scientist Barron Orr, an expert on land degradation processes and social dimensions of natural resource management will be leading the UNCCD scientific team during the negotiations at the CoP.
  • In this interview Orr talks details the UNCCD’s efforts to tackle the pressing issues of land loss and degradation and what he hopes will be achieved at this international event.

Barron Joseph Orr, lead scientist at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), is at the forefront of the UN body’s efforts to tackle land degradation. The UNCCD was born 25 years ago and while its initial focus was on combating desertification in Africa, it has a near universal reach now with 197 countries being party to the convention. It is also the only UN body that is explicitly concerned with land degradation and its fallouts, especially in the age of the Anthropocene, during which human activity has a dominant influence on climate change and the environment.

In an expansive interview with Mongabay-India, Orr details the UNCCD’s efforts to tackle the pressing issues of land loss and degradation and how the idea of land degradation neutrality can be a lifesaver.

With the UNCCD in the spotlight again with its upcoming 14th Conference of Parties (CoP) to be held in New Delhi later this year, Orr also talks about what he hopes will be achieved at this international event.

Lead scientist Barron Orr will be leading the UNCCD scientific team during the negotiations at the CoP in New Delhi this year. Photo courtesy IISD/Kiara Worth.

Can you explain why combating desertification has become more important in these times of climate change and global warming?

Vegetation cover, whether natural or through farming, is fundamental to stable soils. Climate change can put stress on that vegetation through higher temperatures, altered precipitation patterns and/or more frequent extreme events. When vegetation is stressed, land degradation is much more likely. These stresses are often more pronounced in dry lands, where water is scarce and thus more sensitive to climate change. The opposite is equally true: one of the keys to building community and ecosystem resilience to climate change is ensuring the right crops are planted (an adaptation to new climate patterns) using sustainable land management practices. In this way, avoiding or reducing the risk of land degradation is fundamental to any response to climate change.

Can you explain the concept of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN)?

In the past, we addressed land degradation by attempting to fix it wherever it occurred. But new degradation exceeds all our best efforts to fix past degradation. It became evident that a more balanced and more holistic approach was necessary. That is why policy makers set a global target of not letting things get worse – in net terms. This is what is meant by land degradation neutrality – counterbalancing all new degradation that, for whatever reasons, cannot be avoided, through the reversal of an equal or greater amount of land that was degraded in the past.

LDN changes everything, because it forces us all to recognise that land is a limited resource, and that policy makers, planners and land managers must think and act in a much more holistic manner, anticipating likely new degradation and optimising the selection of interventions so that, when taken together, there is no net loss.

The power of LDN is that an intervention which addresses land degradation can also sequester carbon or conserve biodiversity – meaning LDN is compatible with land-based efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change and/or conserve biodiversity.

What are some of the key drivers of land degradation?

In the past land degradation was driven by the combined effects of human actions (examples are in the table below) and variations in the climatic conditions, such as droughts, floods, wind storms, etc.

But recent assessments have revealed new drivers, two of which I would like to highlight. Our production and consumption patterns because most of the products we consume are now produced or consumed far from the land of their origin. This phenomenon is known as telecoupling, also referred to as the butterfly effect. The fact that we don’t see the damage done to the land from which we consume makes us care less about the state of the land. In short, while our rights to consume any land products from anywhere in the world has grown, the responsibility to take care of that land is been eroded.

A second new driver is urbanisation. As cities grow, many are taking up some of the most productive land in a process known as land sealing. A problem that was largely common in developed countries is now spreading to very other part of the world.

What are some of the solutions at hand?

Optimising land use can enable local governments to preserve their best lands for their communities. Second, improving the certification of products can tighten the links between responsible production and consumption of products. To ensure all these different actions hold together and lead to change on a wide scale requires something to hold it together.

Can you elaborate on the centrality of land in achieving SDGs?

Almost all of the SDGs compete for land and land resources. Thus, if we approach land in the right way, it can become an integrator and accelerator of the SDGs, as stated by the UN General Assembly. Put another way, if we are planning for economic growth and agricultural productivity and biodiversity conservation in an integrated way, we can optimise for all of these goals. If we don’t, we will never achieve all of the SDGs.

The primary barriers most people think of to achieving the SDGs by 2030 have to do with political will and the commitment of resources (human and financial) to meet the targets. However, even more fundamental is that, while each goal is in-and-of-itself laudable and absolutely necessary, most of the SDGs are dependent on land and land resources, which means that more attention needs to be focused on supporting integrated land use planning processes with the right data and tools necessary to navigate competing demands.

Can you explain the idea of decoupling natural resource use from economic growth environmental impacts?

Many resources follow a complex path from the beginning to the end of their life cycle, involving many actors along the way, so allocating responsibility for consumption (and therefore decoupling) along this value chain remains a challenge. A very tangible example of decoupling is the development of policies which increase the economic viability of slow food, because eating local produced food reduces many of the influences which contribute to degradation and clarifies, end-to-end, the linkages (and responsibilities) for production and consumption.

As a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on this states, Decoupling means using less resources per unit of economic output and reducing the environmental impact of any resources that are used or economic activities that are undertaken. Thus, means reducing the amount of resources such as water or fossil fuels used to produce economic growth and delinking economic development from environmental deterioration. Decoupling represents a strategic approach for moving forward a global Green Economy – one that “results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.

Could you tell us a little about the UNCCD Drought Initiative?

Drought is considered one of the most far-reaching natural disasters, bringing short and long-term economic and social losses to millions of people worldwide. Many countries across the globe that soon may face the impacts of intense drought still lack a comprehensive plan of action at the first signs of drought.

At the Conference of Parties that took place in China in 2017, governments decided to launch the UNCCD Drought Initiative. The objective is to ensure that early action is taken when a country is in drought, based on a well laid out plan, making the country drought resilient. The Drought Initiative provides the support needed to develop national action plans and Drought Toolbox from which to draw on when action is needed.

What do you hope to be the key outcomes of the CoP 14?

Scientific and technological advances have empowered us to address land degradation in ways that will help mitigate and/or adapt to climate change and support the conservation of biodiversity. Nevertheless, land transformation through changing land use is accelerating, often driven by consumption in places distant from where the land has been transformed. This suggests the need of appropriate policy responses that lead to more integrated land use planning, greater safeguards of land tenure and more effective ways of linking consumption and production flows to land. A second major issue is the drought-land nexus, where policies are needed to ensure that human influences on water availability are more fundamentally part of drought policies, planning and mitigation. These major issues, which have been explored scientifically, now must be considered in terms of policy response – CoP 14 provides a tremendous opportunity to move things in the right direction on these topics.

Read more: Is India doing enough to battle desertification?


Banner image: While the Thar Desert has a strong ecological function, with the degradation of the Aravallis there is a fear of desertification spreading to other parts of the country. Photo by Sampa Guha Majumdar/Wikimedia Commons.

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