Reaffirming the Value of Land


  • 2015•09•24

    Naomi Stewart

    The Global Goals

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

    Our Earth offers us many assets, from clean air to fresh water. We, as humans, are firmly grounded on terra firma, and depend on the complex set of resources and services that land provides in order to live and work in a healthy and sustainable manner. And so, too, will our future generations.

    Goal #15 of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (see above) explicitly confirms the value of land, terrestrial ecosystems, and biodiversity. Why then, is up to a third of our arable land affected by degradation and desertification? Why do up to 1.4 billion already-marginalised people — the rural poor — live on less-favoured agricultural land and areas? Where are we lacking an understanding of the trade-offs when we make decisions about what do with our land and its resources? And how can we improve our understanding so as to balance our needs with what the land is actually capable of providing on an ongoing basis, now and in the future?

    There is one particular tool that can be of great use here: economics. Far too often, the values that land provides are simply not accounted for nor counted in traditional markets. For instance, a litre of clean air is purified through trees and plants rooted in the earth; but this not considered when a plot of forested land is sold with the intent to clear it for crops or urbanisation. What are the costs in losing that clean air? More importantly, what are the benefits of preserving or restoring it?

    Using a common metric to measure all of the goods and services land provides gives us the closest approximation to the actual impact and influence that land has on the economy. For several years now, The Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) initiative has been trying to answer these concerns by collating and synthesising available information. The initiative aims to provide a global assessment of sustainable land management research and practice in an economic context — with the understanding that raising awareness is crucial to combating degradation.

    This should provide humanity with an understanding of the total economic value of land, not only traditional market values like crop productivity but also non-market values such as clean air and fresh drinking water. And it will be particularly useful in addressing some of the targets of SDG #15, including those focusing on combatting desertification and degraded land/ soil, preserving biodiversity and ecosystems, and ensuring sustainable forest management.

    It is also important to provide different groups — the private sector, policy-/decision-makers, and scientific communities —– with the tools to do cost-benefit analyses and make the best decisions about how we can all manage land sustainably for optimal long-term benefits (social, economica, environmental, etc.) rather than short-term gains.

    To this end, the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) has been acting as the Scientific Coordination for the international, collaborative ELD project, providing guidance and oversight on the scientific context and strategies. Today, on 24 September 2015, and as forward support for the upcoming ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals, these efforts are culminating in the launch of the ELD Initiative report “The Value of Land”  at UN Headquarters in New York.

    Within this report is a series of perspectives and tools, from local to global, on how to truly understand the different futures of land management that are available to us. The research presented is immeasurable; Anywhere from US$6.3 to $10.6 trillion is lost annually in ecosystem services as a result of land degradation. This is a staggering 10%–17% of total global GDP, every year. However, the research also identifies the potential to gain US$75.6 trillion annually through sustainable land management practices.

    With these types of economic insights, we can make definitive choices that do not have to put economic growth in conflict with environmental protection. It becomes clear that both can be accomplished, with great rewards and prosperous lands. Indeed, achieving SDG #15 will require this kind of information and tools.

    Rehabilitating, restoring, and protecting our lands also has the potential to solve another major issue facing humanity: climate change. Given the intricate feedback loop between land degradation and climate change, and with soils as the second-largest carbon sink on earth, it is only natural that working to keep the carbon in the soil through reduced erosion should be seen as a critical contribution to combating climate change.

    UNU-INWEH has been working with over 30 partner institutions and a vast network of experts, practitioners, and interested parties to establish a consensual understanding of how land is currently valued, and how it should be valued in order to ensure its sustainable use. With core funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the European Commission, and Korea Forest Service, and with strong support by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, this is truly a global effort with sincere interest. It is an acknowledgement that going forward we must work towards protecting our land — for ourselves, for each other, and for the rest of life on earth.


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    Reaffirming the Value of Land by Naomi Stewart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.