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Land woes taking a back seat to CO2

by Janice Tang

Kyodo News

While climate change has finally won the attention of world leaders, the United Nations is concerned about a lack of action on another major — and yet interlinked — global challenge: land degradation and desertification.

A deteriorated atmosphere destroys land potential through drought, flooding and other harmful phenomena. And when the land is degraded, it emits more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which in turn worsen climate change.

“We have created a vicious cycle,” said Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, or the UNCCD.

Gnacadja, speaking in an interview in Tokyo this month, stressed that the only way to break the cycle — which would also be a key factor in solving the current food crisis — is to focus on addressing both atmospheric damage and the land.

“Unfortunately, the global community has much more focus on the atmosphere,” the former environment minister of Benin lamented. “The world leaders have said we must do more to mitigate carbon. There is one area where we do have untapped potential to do so — the land. It will be a win-win situation.”

The UNCCD, springing out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, believes more investment in agriculture and rural areas, as well as better access for farmers to local, regional and international markets, are among the sound and integrated policies necessary for sustainable land management.

Gnacadja said Japan, as this year’s chair of the Group of Eight summit, can support the UNCCD process by pressing the international community to agree on a set of baselines and indicators for measurement, establish specific targets for commitment and properly monitor implementation.

“These are the priorities of the strategy,” he said, referring to the 10-year strategic plan for 2008 to 2018 that was adopted by UNCCD member parties in Madrid last September.

According to the U.N. Environment Program, the global rate of desertification is increasing.

Desertification occurs mainly through overcropping, overgrazing, improper irrigation and deforestation.

Such human factors also generate a vicious cycle by worsening climatic factors such as prolonged drought and rainfall that lead to further land erosion.

The UNEP estimates that desertification currently affects some 25 percent to 30 percent of the world’s land area and that about 1.2 billion people in at least 100 countries are at risk. It also accounts for more than $42 billion in lost productivity each year.

Africa, 66 percent of its land either desert or drylands, is particularly affected.

“If we want to tackle the food crisis in Africa, we should improve the productivity of the land,” Gnacadja said. “As a matter of fact, the geography of poverty coincides with that of the degradation of land worldwide, including in Africa.”

Sustainable agriculture calls for maintaining and restoring soil fertility through economic efforts, such as adjusting profitability and productivity of farms, and social efforts, such as improving quality of life in rural areas and providing better training and education.

Gnacadja urged Japan to further highlight the potential that soil and land have for ameliorating the effects of climate change and the food crisis at next month’s G8 summit.

“We really need now the commitment of the leaders of the world, including the ones of the G8, to express their willingness, to set vision and objectives on how we can better use this land,” he said.

Climate change and African development issues will be major topics at the summit when the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the U.S. meet in Toyako, Hokkaido. The food crisis is also likely to be discussed.

Leaders from emerging nations, including China and South Africa, will attend outreach sessions at the summit.

“We are calling for more attention under the climate change agenda to land potential,” Gnacadja said. “If we fail, we will all get cooked between the land and the atmosphere, like a hamburger.”