Interview / 26 Apr, 2019
Soil Restoration Is a Key Climate Solution – Interview with UNCCD Chief Ibrahim Thiaw

UN Cimate Change News, 26 April 2019 - As the international community scrambles to develop solutions to climate change, arguably the greatest threat to face humanity, so-called “nature-based solutions” are gaining more traction as highly effective ways of storing the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that is primarily responsible for the destabilization of the global climate system. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is based in Bonn and is one of the three "Rio Conventions". UNCCD has a major role to play in both protecting healthy land and restoring degraded land. Land restoration not only produces rapid results, but is also inexpensive, creates jobs and enables people to ensure their food security.

UN Climate Change News spoke with the UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw, who has nearly 40 years of experience in the fields of sustainable development, environmental governance and natural resource management. He was Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General for the Sahel before taking over in early 2019 the leadership of the UNCCD, founded at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 along with the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Here is the full interview:

What is the mission of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification?

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the only international treaty dealing with sustainable land management. We talk about “Mother Earth”: 99.7% of our food comes from the Earth. We also talk about “Protective Earth”: it is the Earth that protects us from natural disasters, and when the Earth is well protected it provides for our economy.

It is estimated that land losses are equivalent to $1.3 billion per day due to land degradation. However, when it comes to climate change, it is also the Earth that is the second largest natural carbon reservoir after the oceans. So any action to conserve soil and protect it is a positive step for the climate: both on the adaptation and on the mitigation side. Therefore, sustainable land and space management allows us to build additional carbon sinks. Worldwide there are 2 billion hectares of land that could be restored that is either slightly or severely degraded, which means that we can potentially store significant amounts of carbon when these lands are restored.

Can you explain to us the link between land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss?

We have a planet with more than seven billion inhabitants and soon to be nine. This planet lives and breathes: it inhales and exhales according to the biological environment. It's our reservoir.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) aims to conserve the world's biological resources, both marine and terrestrial. The Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) seeks to fix these biological resources on land - less on the maritime part - because it is essentially on land that humans live. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) seeks to protect humanity from degradation caused mainly by emissions of greenhouse gases and very short-lived gases into the atmosphere, which are not covered by climate negotiations but are nevertheless gases harmful to the climate.

These three Conventions are interconnected. Three essential pieces that constitute the heart of humanity's activities as a kind of puzzle: all the pieces must be intertwined. Any action to protect the climate is good for biodiversity and to combat land degradation. These three conventions were negotiated in Rio exactly 27 years ago and form a coherent whole.

Porrtait M. Thiaw

UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw

What is the impact of desertification and land degradation on the climate?

When we say that land is the second largest reservoir of carbon, we mean that any action to degrade land emits carbon. In forests in particular, there are large peat bogs, so a lot of carbon is stored in the soil, soil that is protected either by trees or by ephemeral plant species such as grasses. This is why any action to degrade natural environments emits carbon. On the other hand, any action to restore and conserve land is an additional carbon sink. The connection between climate - land degradation - desertification is therefore undeniable.

Of course, it is essential to protect the oceans, which cover two thirds of the planet's surface, and the main carbon sink, but humans live on land and not in the sea. And finally, land is much more vulnerable since it is necessary to feed seven billion people. Moreover, the food we consume today is not necessarily local because it is sometimes imported over thousands of kilometers. We are in an interconnected world and as I often repeat to my colleagues here: the coffee I drank this morning is not produced in Bonn, where UNCCD headquarters is located.

When we talk about the protection and conservation of the natural environment, it is not necessarily a local action. In the same way as climate protection: it is a global whole. If we consider what we call the "butterfly effect" it means that a negative action somewhere in the world can have impact thousands of kilometers away. For example: when land degradation reaches an extreme level, we have sandstorms that transport tons of soil over thousands of kilometers. But sometimes this can have a positive effect, as when the Amazonian forest receives nutrients from the Sahel and Sahara, contained in the desert sand, because sand is a natural fertilizer!

Can you give us some very concrete examples of land degradation?

Land degradation action is a bit like climate change. It's not a wave, it's not a flood with a breakwater. Sometimes it is comprised of small, very harmful actions by a farmer, rancher or bush fire that constitute a stain, then these small spots sometimes gather together to form a large wound.

The growth of the urban population and unsustainable human consumption patterns also feed it. This major wound is either a loss of vegetation or soil erosion. This is land degradation. It is estimated that globally we have the equivalent of 23 hectares of land that is lost every minute due to deforestation, degradation of wetlands, lakes, rivers, etc. This may be due to overexploitation of land for agriculture, because the world is increasingly greedy, increasingly consuming products of which a third are lost and not consumed: it is food waste. But there can also be post-harvest losses which, in some places, can reach up to 40% of production! A loss simply because the farmer who produces does not have the possibility to bring his product to the market because of a lack of conservation means, due, for example, to a lack of energy: vegetables, fruit, all perishable products are extremely vulnerable, or because the roads are not good, so access to markets is very difficult, or, quite often, the poor peasant in Mali or Malawi can transport his product to the market to lose it right in front of the consumers because he has not been able to get adequate storage boxes for his tomatoes or fruits, so it is thrown in the bin. Unfortunately, all this is carbon. Because a fruit is carbon, water, energy, economy: if we make a carbon assessment of all this bad production or fruit which is not consumed or thrown away, it is ultimately a huge loss for humanity! And unfortunately, at the same time, it contributes to climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss.

Which countries are mainly concerned by these problems of desertification and land degradation?

It is a global phenomenon. All regions of the world are affected. Some regions are more affected than others quite naturally: the African continent, due to the great Sahara and the Kalahari desert, is a region heavily affected by land degradation. It is also a region where populations are economically less well-off and are therefore more dependent on natural environments. There are very few Africans who have a bank account, but they do have natural capital. So, these are regions that are very dependent on a layer of soil and a few drops of rain to live. But Asia is just as affected, the Middle East, Central Asia, China: all regions of the world. Europe! The entire Mediterranean region is affected by land degradation issues, sometimes in mountain regions, but also in plains due to human activity. It is estimate that 40% of land in Latin America is degraded. It is not a local phenomenon. In addition, this can be amplified by local actions to feed a local population or by behavior such as land grabbing.

Unsustainable systems, production and consumption patterns that are not adapted to the planet's carrying capacity are also involved. We have exceeded the Earth's carrying capacity. Every year you see organizations that calculate the ecological "Overshoot Day". This is the day humanity consumes more natural resources, emits more greenhouse gases than the planet is able to produce or absorb in a year. And every year we lose extra days: we need two planets now and soon three! But we only have one. We are eating into our capital so much that we have less savings and therefore less income, if you still use the analogy of a bank account.

What is your agency's strategy to combat these phenomena?

First, it is first of all a “tightening” strategy to reduce “bleeding”, of the gaping wound that causes blood to flow. We have to stop the bleeding. Reduce land loss. Review our consumption and production methods to stop it and then try to heal the wound by restoring degraded natural environments.

Secondly, and this is the good news: these restoration activities are magnificent job providers, millions of jobs, because they are labour-intensive activities. And this happens whilst reducing climate change, conserving biodiversity and protecting the Earth, so it’s a win-win. This land restoration action will either result in new land available for agriculture, pastoralism or tourism activities: thus, regenerating the land generates long-term income. Therefore, it is not only short-term employment to fix, to restore the environment, but also to generate a new economy in the long term.

Thirdly, and this is also good news: by carrying out these activities to restore the natural environment in degraded areas, we help to improve the economy, thereby reducing the risks of illegal or forced immigration. There are many young people who are forced to leave their communities because there is no longer any production. So, they go to the neighboring city or country and further and further away... So restoring the natural environment is an excellent way to empower people to stay in their territories, especially young people, and to reduce this extraordinary human loss of young people who will sometimes die due to increasingly chaotic and dangerous immigration.

How does the UNCCD support people in practice?

As a Convention, we help States to establish appropriate policies, to review the concept of development, but we also help our Member States, our States Parties, to develop programmes. The structure of the "Global Mechanism" within the Convention makes the UNCCD a unique institution compared to the other two Rio Conventions. Its ambition and mandate is to provide technical support to States to develop programmes, policies, help in the search for funding... but we do not implement. Implementation is carried out by States themselves, NGOs, local institutions and authorities, local elected officials, etc. or by international assistance such as that provided by the United Nations. It is also a matter of accompanying, of supporting, in order to help them to have access to global funds, but especially to help them develop their own development policy, with their own budget, to reverse the trend, to really enhance their own capital.

Should degraded land rehabilitation and desertification be further integrated into international climate discussions?

Yes, it is absolutely essential. This is already the case indirectly when we talk about forests because forests are quite present in climate negotiations. But it is simply seen from the perspective of "tropical forests". So we should broaden this discussion because, as has been said, if up to 40% of the Earth's surface is affected by desertification and land degradation, this means that there is potentially a huge space in which carbon can be stored - there is already carbon in savannah areas, etc. - but we could store even more carbon.

When degraded areas are restored, this puts even less pressure on forests, since human activity is redistributed over a much wider area. This is why it is absolutely essential that in climate negotiations, elements related to open forest areas, areas more opened than dense wetlands and forests, which are being discussed under REDD+ programmes for example, are integrated. Moreover, just as much work should be done on the conservation of mangroves in coastal areas.

So yes, it is a phenomenon that touches all three conventions, and the negotiations are of course separated because we have three conventions, but the activities must be completely integrated. They are the same States, the same Parties, the same peoples! It is the same planet, so we cannot have blinders, we absolutely must be able to work by harnessing synergies.

Editors note: Contrary to a commonly held belief, “desertification” does not mean the transformation of land into desert. “Desertification” refers to land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas as a result of various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.