World loses trillions of dollars worth of nature’s benefits each year due to land degradation

UN University – INWEH, Hamilton, Canada


Arbeiter inmitten von verkohlten Waldflächen. Regenerative Energietechnologien können lokale und globale Umweltbelastungen vermeiden. Während die lokale Luftverschmutzung bei der Verbrennung fossiler Energieträger auch durch Abgasreinigung gemindert werden kann, muss die Entstehung von global relevanten Klimaschadstoffen wie CO2 von vornherein vermieden werden. / Workers in the middle of charred forest areas. Renewable energy technologies can avoid both local and global environmental burdens. While the local air pollution from burning fossil fuel can be reduced through exhaust treatment, the production of globally relevant climate pollutants such as CO2 must be prevented from occurring at all.

To better inform the tradeoffs involved in land use choices around the world, experts have assessed the value of ecosystem services provided by land resources such as food, poverty reduction, clean water, climate and disease regulation and nutrients cycling.

Their report today estimates the value of ecosystem services worldwide forfeited due to land degradation at a staggering US $6.3 trillion to $10.6 trillion annually, or the equivalent of 10-17% of global GDP.

Furthermore, the problem threatens to force the migration of millions of people from affected areas. An estimated ( 50 million people may be forced to seek new homes and livelihoods within 10 years. That many migrants assembled would constitute the world’s 28th largest country by population.

Effectively addressing land degradation could help avert that humanitarian crisis and add US $75.6 trillion to annual world income, according to the report, “The Value of Land”, produced by The Economics of Land Degradation Initiative.

With guidance by United Nations University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health and the CGIAR’s Research Programme on Drylands Systems, the report culminates a four-year collaboration involving 30 renowned international research and policy institutes. The Initiative is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Commission and the Korean Forest Service.

Some 52% of world agricultural land is moderately or severely degraded, the report says.

However, “the economics of land degradation is about a lot more than agriculture.”

For example, soil is second only to oceans as the planet’s largest carbon sink, while agriculture and land use changes represent the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing land degradation and its causes, therefore, represents a double-sided way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the report says.

“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 says.

National studies verify that the value of ecosystem services and benefits far outweigh the cost of preventing land degradation or the cost of remediation in most situations.

The report calls on countries to recognize the huge value of improved land management and to enhance institutional capacity and knowledge in the area, together with national policy, economic, legislative and regulatory frameworks.

The authors note that cost-benefit analyses of sustainable land management scenarios “can be done even with limited data availability,”and underscore that, despite an inevitable degree of uncertainty, “it is imperative to take action now, as every day sees the loss of more productive land that will have to be gained back.”

Quick facts from the report:

  • 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.


Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary, UN Convention to Combat Desertification: “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.”

Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs: “This study by ELD shows the immediate and global impact of land degradation and highlights that actions to tackle it pay off. Increased land degradation is also one of the factors that can lead to migration and it is being exacerbated by climate change. On our planet, the area affected by drought has doubled in 40 years. One third of Africa is threatened by desertification. As President Juncker said in his State of the Union speech last week, climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly. We need to be as ambitious as possible in the negotiations for COP 21 in Paris”


The Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative

ELD was created to help raise global awareness of the full economic potential of land and land services, including market and non-market values (e.g., carbon sequestration, recreational values, nutrient cycling, etc.) and the costs of land degradation.

The Initiative focused on creating efficient, practical tools and methodologies to fully assess land’s value and thus encourage sustainable land management.

By determining the economic values of ecosystem services preserved or enhanced through proper land management and restoration, the ELD Initiative has created ‘a common language’ to help communities choose between land use options.

Options to address land degradation include reforestation, afforestation, sustainable agricultural practices, and establishing alternative livelihoods such as eco-tourism. Potential economic tools include payments for ecosystem services, subsidies, taxes, voluntary payments for environmental conservation, and access to micro-finance and credit. Facilitating sustainable land management also requires using legal, social marketing, and policy tools.

Final report

The Value of Land
In full:
Summary of findings and recommendations: Pages 133-136

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News release in full, click here

Example coverage:

Washington Post, USA: “Damaging the land we live on is costing humans trillions every year,” click here

Reuters, UK: “Spread of deserts costs trillions, spurs migrants: study,” click here
Portuguese: “Expansão de desertos custa trilhões e gera migração, diz estudo da ONU,” click here
Chinese: “土地退化經濟損失 1年逾數兆美元,” click here

The Guardian, UK: “Land degradation costs the world up to $10.6tn a year, report says,” click here

Newsweek, USA: “Climate Change Will Cause the World’s Next Migration Crisis (Frank Biermann commentary),” click here; “Lack of Resources Could Create 50 Million Climate Migrants in Decade, Says Report,” click here

Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), Germany, German: “UN-Studie: Riesen-Verluste drohen: 50 Millionen Flüchtlinge durch Bodenzerstörung,” click here (also via APA, Austria: click here)

ANSA, Italy, Italian: “Il 17% del Pil mondiale va in fumo per degradazione suolo,” click here

Agencia EFE, Spain, Spanish: “El mundo pierde hasta un 17 % de PIB anual por la degradación del suelo,” click here

Actualités News Environnement, France, French: “La désertification coûte des trillions et suscite la migration,” click here

Indo-Asian News Service, India: “Land degradation can create 50 million migrants in a decade: Study,” click here

Maailma, Finland, Finnish: “Raportti: Maaperän rappeutuminen maksaa biljoonia vuodessa,” click here

صحيفة حريات, (Hurriyat) Sudan, Arabic: “دراسة دولية جديدة : السودان يخسر أكثر من (7% ) من قيمة أراضيه,” click here

DiaCaf, Romania, Romanian: “Criza refugiatilor nu se termina curand. Specialistii avertizeaza: mai urmeaza un val!,” click here

Dnevnik, Bulgaria, Bulgarian: “Разширяването на пустините струва трилиони долари и създава милиони имигранти,” click here

New Europe, Belgium: “What if Syria is only the beginning of the refugee crisis?,” click here

Sueddeutsche, Germany, German: “Das unterschätzte Gut,” click here

Protothema, Greece, Greek: “Κίνδυνος για την ανθρωπότητα η εξάπλωση των ερήμων,” click here

iPolitics, Canada: “Next wave of migrants will be seeking arable land, warn experts,” click here

International Business Times, USA
Land Degradation, Desertification Might Create 50 Million Climate Refugees Within A Decade,” click here

EurActiv, EU, German: “Land in Sicht: Den Wert unseres Bodens erkennen,” click here

Aamulehti, Finland, Finnish: “Tuore raportti: Kymmenessä vuodessa jopa 50 miljoonaa ympäristöpakolaista lisää,” click here

Merdeka, Indonesia, Indonesian: “Bumi tengah menderita! 5 Fakta kerusakan lingkungan ini bikin ngeri,” click here

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Complete coverage summary, click here