At a time when environmental degradation and climate change challenge the fundamental basis for societies and economies worldwide, researchers around the world have been working diligently to put a monetary value on all the services ecosystems provide.

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Aiming to better inform policymakers and the public regarding the trade-offs inherent in choosing alternative land use and development paths and allocating capital among investments, researchers working under the umbrella of The Economics of Land Degradation Initiative (ELD) have determined that improving the way we develop and use land and soils could add as much as $75.6 billion a year to worldwide income.

Not only that, effectively addressing the issue of land and soil degradation would go a long way towards avoiding humanitarian crises that would have destabilizing impacts on many nations, particularly those such as the US and EU where floods of immigrants have sparked public outcry, demonstrations and conflict. 

Avoiding forced migrations and adding $76 billion to world income

According to ELD’s ¨The Value of Land: Prosperous lands and positive rewards through sustainable land management,¨ an estimated 50 million people may be forced to abandon their livelihoods and leave their homes to seek new ones in the next 10 years.

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Four years in the making, 30 prominent international research and policy institutes contributed to ELD’s 2015 report. Guiding th ELD Initiative were Hamilton, Ontario-based UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health and CGIAR, a consortium of international agricultural research centers.
The ELD Initiative found that more than half (52 percent) of agricultural land worldwide is moderately or severely degraded. The resulting effects reach far beyond food and agriculture, however.
Following the world’s oceans, soils serve as the world’s second largest carbon sink, ELD highlights. Agriculture and land use change, for example, is the second largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, which exacerbate climate change.

In a press release, ELD highlights key facts that illustrate the value and benefits ecosystems services provide, as well as the costs of land and soil degradation:

  • Land cover changes since year 2000 are responsible for half to 75% of the lost ecosystem services value
  • The value of lost ecosystem services due to land degradation averages US $43,400 to $72,000 per square km, some US $870 to $1,450 per person, globally each year
  • Agricultural investments of US $30 billion per year are needed to feed the world’s growing population
  • The percentage of Earth’s land stricken by serious drought doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s
  • One third of the world is vulnerable to land degradation; one third of Africa is threatened by desertification
  • A future focused on a shift to sustainability will see the greatest increase in ecosystem service values and GDP.

National studies have verified that the value and benefits ecosystems provide societies and economies far outweigh the costs of preventing land and soil degradation, ELD noted. Furthermore, cost-benefit scenario analysis studies of sustainable land use and change can be completed cost-effectively and with limited availability of data.

“Adequate management of agricultural and forestry land uses are amongst the lowest-cost actions that can reduce global warming, and most actions are either neutral cost or of positive net profit to society, requiring no substantial capital investment,” the report authors state.

Calling on governments worldwide to make sustainable land use and development a high priority

Launching its 2015 report at the UN General Assembly meeting that took place at UN headquarters in New York City September 15, ELD called on national governments to recognize the tremendous, irreplaceable value of healthy lands and soils and enhance institutional frameworks – government policies and economic, legislative and regulatory regimes and organizational priorities – so as to promote and foster greater use of sustainable land and soil management methods and practices.

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Commenting on ELD’s 2015 report, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Monique Barbut stated: ¨As Oscar Wilde put is once ‘people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ This is certainly true when we look at our land resources – we do not value them.

¨The ELD Initiative proves it should be a no-brainer. Land degradation eats away at our fertile land. That is our common resource base. It is time to efficiently and cost-effectively harness the land and land-based ecosystems to provide for our needs and secure our livelihoods.

*Image credits: ELD Initiative