Worsening Land Degradation Posing Significant Threat to Global Population
Worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change. It is also a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict, according to the world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration.
Analysts say the trend could reduce crop yields by as much as 10 percent by 2050.
The dangers of land degradation, which cost the equivalent of about 10 percent of the world’s annual gross product in 2010 through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, are detailed for policymakers, together with a catalogue of corrective options, in the three-year assessment report by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries.
Produced by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the report was approved at the 6th session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia. IPBES has 129 State Members.
Providing the best-available evidence for policymakers to make better-informed decisions, the report draws on more than 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources. Extensively peer-reviewed, it was improved by more than 7,300 comments, received from over 200 external reviewers.
Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. The degradation has reached ‘critical” levels in many parts of the world, the report says.
“With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction,” said Robert Scholes (South Africa), co-chair of the assessment with Luca Montanarella (Italy). “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.”
According to the report’s authors, land degradation manifests itself through land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and fresh water, as well as deforestation.
“Through this report, the global community of experts has delivered a frank and urgent warning, with clear options to address dire environmental damage,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson.
“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,” Watson said. “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.”
Solutions from the Land, through initiatives such as the North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA), is promoting land management practices that can boost sustainable production and increase the resiliency of existing lands in the face of a changing climate, while increasing soil’s carbon sequestration benefits and restoring wildlife habitat.
The IPBES report finds that land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another major driver of the changing climate has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2.
Given the importance of soil’s carbon absorption and storage functions, the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2-degrees-Celsius threshold targeted in the Paris Agreement on climate change, increase food and water security, and contribute to the avoidance of conflict and migration.
‘World Atlas of Desertification’ Quantifies Growth of Land Degradation
Confirming the threats laid out by the IPBES report is a new World Atlas of Desertification from the EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC), which shows land degradation has increased dramatically over the past 20 years and highlights the urgency to adopt corrective measures, such as climate smart agriculture.
JRC officials say the atlas offers a tool for decision makers to improve local responses to soil loss and land degradation by providing the first comprehensive, evidence-based assessment of land degradation at a global level.
The latest is on the third edition of the atlas published since 1992, but the last one was published 20 years ago, in 1998.
“Over the past twenty years, since the publication of the last edition of the [Atlas], pressures on land and soil have increased dramatically,” said Tibor Navracsics, EU commissioner responsible for the JRC. “To preserve our planet for future generations, we urgently need to change the way we treat these precious resources. This new and much more advanced edition of the atlas gives policymakers worldwide comprehensive and easily accessible insights into land degradation, its causes and potential remedies to tackle desertification and restoring degraded land.”
The main findings show that population growth and changes in global consumption patterns put unprecedented pressure on the planet’s natural resources:
- More than 75 percent of the Earth’s land area is already degraded, and over 90 percent could become degraded by 2050.
- Globally, a total area half of the size of the European Union (4.18 million km²) is degraded annually, with Africa and Asia being the most affected.
- The economic cost of soil degradation for the EU is estimated to be in the order of tens of billions of euros annually.
- Land degradation and climate change are estimated to lead to a reduction of global crop yields by about 10 percent by 2050. Most of this will occur in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, where land degradation could halve crop production.
- As a consequence of accelerated deforestation, it will become more difficult to mitigate the effects of climate change.
- By 2050, up to 700 million people are estimated to have been displaced due to issues linked to scarce land resources. The figure could reach up to 1 billion by the end of this century.
While land degradation is a global problem, it takes place locally and requires local solutions. Greater commitment and more effective cooperation at the local level are necessary to stop land degradation and loss of biodiversity, the JRC says.
The researchers say the expansion of land area being converted to agriculture is a principle cause of degradation. The first pillar of climate smart agriculture – a foundational element of NACSAA – calls for sustainably increasing agricultural productivity – and livelihoods – on existing cropland. While others reject technology and innovation and call for a return to 19th century farming practices, NACSAA differentiates itself in calling for the sustainable intensification of production. The alliance promotes climate smart land management practices that result in better yields, including crop rotation and no- and low- till soil preparation.
Satellite Images Show Global Freshwater Changes, Groundwater Depletion
In a first-of-its-kind study, scientists have combined an array of NASA satellite observations of Earth with data on human activities to map locations where freshwater is changing around the globe and why.
The study, published today in the journal Nature, finds that Earth’s wet land areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier due to a variety of factors, including human water management, such as pumping groundwater out of an aquifer faster than it is replenished; climate change; and natural cycles, including wet and dry periods attributable El Niño and La Niña atmospheric events.
A team led by Matt Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, used 14 years of observations from the U.S./German-led Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft mission to track global trends in freshwater in 34 regions around the world. To get a full understanding of the reasons for Earth’s freshwater changes, the team also pulled together satellite precipitation data, USGS imagery, irrigation maps, and published reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.
A disturbing trend found by the satellites is the pumping of groundwater for agriculture production faster than the aquifer can restore itself in areas like California’s San Joaquin Valley, as well as in heavily farmed areas in other parts of the world, like China and India. In the San Joaquin Valley, scientists are not only raising concerns about the sustainability of food production due to groundwater depletion, but they also finding valley ground levels are sinking.
That drain on groundwater could, in turn, spark what some say could be a global food crisis. The San Joaquin Valley, for instance, produces about 13 percent of the U.S. food supply, including two-thirds of all nation’s fruits and nuts, and that about a quarter of the food that California produces is exported around the world.
Freshwater is found in lakes, rivers, soil, snow, groundwater and ice. Freshwater loss from the ice sheets at the poles – attributed to climate change – has implications for sea level rise. On land, freshwater is one of the most essential of Earth’s resources, for drinking water and agriculture. While some regions’ water supplies are relatively stable, others experienced increases or decreases.
“What we are witnessing is major hydrologic change,” said study co-author Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, which also managed the GRACE mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”
Rodell, Famiglietti and their colleagues concede that the observations from the GRACE satellites launched in 2002 couldn’t alone tell them what was causing the apparent trends.
For instance, although pumping groundwater for agricultural uses is a significant contributor to freshwater depletion throughout the world, groundwater levels are also sensitive to cycles of persistent drought or rainy conditions. Famiglietti noted that such a combination was likely the cause of the significant groundwater depletion observed in California’s Central Valley from 2007 to 2015, when decreased groundwater replenishment from rain and snowfall combined with increased pumping for agriculture.
Helen Dahlke, who is heading up research efforts at the University of California, Davis, says groundwater is a vital resource in California, providing approximately 30 percent of the state’s water supply in normal years (60 percent in dry years).
“Over the past predominantly dry years (2010-2014), groundwater levels have decreased substantially in almost all areas of the state,” says a description of her research. “In some areas groundwater levels have dropped by more than 100 feet below historic lows, leading to land subsidence, increased pumping costs and dried up shallow groundwater wells.
“In order to achieve groundwater sustainability and to sustain California’s agricultural productivity and importance as one of the world’s leading food supplier, large scale, statewide efforts need to be undertaken to recharge groundwater. Agricultural groundwater banking could increase groundwater recharge statewide by applying “surplus” water from surface water sources immediately following storms and reservoir flood-control releases on agricultural land during the winter months.”
Wind, Solar Forecast to Total Half of All Global Power Production by 2050
By 2050, wind and solar technology will provide almost 50 percent of total electricity globally – “50 by 50” – with hydro, nuclear and other renewables taking total zero-carbon electricity up to 71 percent, says New Energy Outlook 2018, released June 25from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).
By 2050, BNEF says the share of electricity production worldwide from burning fossil fuels is expected to drop by more than half, falling from 63 percent today down to 29 percent.
This dramatic shift to “50 by 50” is being driven by cheap solar PV, cheap wind and falling battery costs.
“Cheap renewable energy and batteries fundamentally reshape the electricity system, as the world shifts from two-thirds fossil fuels in 2017, to two-thirds renewable energy in 2050,” BNEF analysts report in the NEO.
Analysts say the cost of an average PV plant falls by 71 percent by 2050. Wind energy is getting cheaper too, and the research firm says it expects those costs to drop 58 percent by 2050. PV and wind are already cheaper than building new large-scale coal and gas plants. Batteries are also dropping dramatically in cost.
BNEF says in its outlook that coal will be the biggest loser, shrinking to just 11 percent of global electricity generation by 2050, down from the current 38 percent.
Gas consumption for power generation is expected to remain flat over the next 30 years, despite growing capacity. Gas plays a key role, however, in backing up renewables during extremes and wind and solar generation are at a minimum, BNEF says.
Electric vehicles (EVs) will add around 3,461 terawatt hours of new electricity demand globally by 2050, equal to 9 percent of total demand, the outlook reports. Analysts say about half of the necessary charging for EVs will be dynamic, taking advantage of times when electricity prices are low because of high renewables output.
“We see $548 billion being invested in battery capacity by 2050, two thirds of that at the grid level and one third installed behind-the-meter by households and businesses,” says BNEF’s Seb Henbest.
“The arrival of cheap battery storage will mean that it becomes increasingly possible to finesse the delivery of electricity from wind and solar, so that these technologies can help meet demand even when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining,” he said. “The result will be renewables eating up more and more of the existing market for coal, gas and nuclear.”
BNEF says the NEO combines the expertise of more than 65 in-house country and technology-level specialists in 12 countries “to provide a unique assessment of the economic drivers and tipping points that will shape the sector to 2050.”
Since the 1970s, fossil fuels have commanded a consistent 60-70-percent share of the global power generation mix, the analysts say in their report.
“We think this 50-year equilibrium is coming to an end, as cheap renewable energy and batteries fundamentally remake electricity systems around the world,” the NEO states.
NEO 2018 sees $11.5 trillion being invested globally in new power generation capacity between 2018 and 2050, with $8.4 trillion of that going to wind and solar and a further $1.5 trillion to other zero-carbon technologies such as hydro and nuclear.
Keep It Covered, Green and Growing Is Soil Champion’s Motto
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story is from the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association and first appeared in the Spring 2018 newsletter published by the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association (CFGA). The association, which recently joined NACSAA, is the national voice for all sectors of the forage and grassland industry in Canada.
By Lilian Schaer, for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association
For Dan Breen, soil is a living, active bio-system that needs protecting. It’s like the “skin” of the earth, he believes, and much like people cover their bare skin when going outside in the winter, fields too need covering to protect them from the elements.
The third-generation Middlesex County dairy farmer, who farms with his wife, daughter and son-in-law near Putnam, has been named the 2018 Soil Champion by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). The award is handed out annually to recognize leaders in sustainable soil management.
Breen had just bought the 100-acre family farm from his parents in late 1989 when he faced a major decision: replace the operation’s worn-out tillage equipment or come up with a different strategy.
A chance encounter introduced him to an emerging new cropping system-and in spring 1990, Breen made his first attempt at no-till, planting 40 acres of corn with a used two-row planter he’d modified. He’s been gradually growing his farming business ever since, today farming 300 owned and 500 rented acres.
“I treat the rented acres like the ones I own and that’s crucial. It’s all about stewardship so whether you own or rent, you have the responsibility to do the best things you can,” he says. “Nature is in balance and we mess up that balance with excessive tillage, taking out too many nutrients, or not providing biodiversity, so we need to provide a stable environment as we go about our farming practices.”
His typical rotation involves corn, soybeans, wheat, and cover crops, which he started planting 12 years ago. About 100 acres are rotated through alfalfa and manure is spread between crops when favourable soil and weather conditions allow.
“The only acreage that doesn’t have year-round living and growing crop is grain corn ground. I try to keep everything green and growing all the time and never have bare ground,” he says, following the motto, keep it covered, keep it green, keep it growing.
According to Breen, no single activity will result in healthy soil and there’s no set recipe for farmers to follow due to the variability of soil type, topography and climate. Instead, it’s important to consider what crop is being grown, what it needs, and what the nutrient levels and biological activity of the soil are.
“A true no-till system is more than just not tilling, it is biodiversity, water retention, and nutrient cycling,” he says. “When I first started no-till, it was just to eliminate tillage, now it is to build a whole nutrient system-cover crops weren’t even on the radar when I started farming.”
One of the pillars of his soil success over the years has been a willingness to try new things-as long as they support the goal of building stronger, more stable soil-and adapting to what a growing season brings.
To other farmers considering a switch to no-till, Breen recommends perseverance to keep going when success looks doubtful, strength to resist naysayers, and starting the transition gradually, such as with no-till soybeans after corn, and then no-till wheat after soybeans.
“It’s a considerable honor and it’s humbling to win this award. It’s not something I was looking to achieve-I do what I do because I love it,” he says. “As a farmer, I’ve had an opportunity to be a caretaker of this land, but I only have tenure for a blip in history. I hope I leave it in better shape than when I found it-and I hope my daughter and son-in-law will do the same thing.”
Senate Farm Bill Includes Provision to Improve Soil Health, Address Climate Change
A provision in the version of the farm bill adopted by the Senate last Thursday would improve soil health in a way that helps agriculture and addresses climate change.
Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) measure – adopted in committee – would establish a pilot project managed by USDA to promote the use of advanced farming practices to capture carbon in soil. These practices improve soil health and crop resilience while lowering the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
“It’s all too rare that an idea comes along that brings people of all political stripes enthusiastically together. I’m proud to have worked with farmers and conservationists on this provision to encourage low-carbon farming practices that will lead to better crops, healthier soil and a better future,” Wyden said. “My soil health provision in the Senate Farm Bill is a win-win for farmers and the environment.”
“Healthy soil is vital to our farmers and our environment,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-I), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. “Senator Wyden’s leadership was critical in the 2018 Senate Farm Bill, which includes an innovative initiative to improve soil health and help our farmers be productive and profitable.”
The provision would require the USDA to study the effects of the pilot projects to determine their viability for broader application on farms across the country.
Wyden’s provision is supported by the American Coalition for Ethanol, Environmental Entrepreneurs, the National Corn Growers Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council.