The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has many flaws in the eyes of Turkish environmental NGOs, but even they might have to admit that he has a good environmental speechwriter. “Humanity needs a new relationship with nature,” he told the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, in Ankara last month. “We are living like foreigners on our own planet. Our consciences, as well as our land, have become degraded.”
Desertification and land degradation, he added, are “the prime reasons people are leaving their homelands”. He went on to castigate the developed countries for failing to support refugees and migrants from ruined land. “Industrialised countries have caused the world’s environmental problems, which lead to conflicts and migrations, and the price is paid by the poorest countries. This is unjust and cannot continue,” he said. The Turkish president concluded a rousing speech by reminding delegates that climate change and drought are “the most important issues in today’s world”. That comment was echoed many times at the two-week conference.
“It is time to stop debating; it is time to act,” Barbara Thompson, South Africa’s impressive deputy environment minister, said during a three-hour “open dialogue session” in which hardly any dialogue took place. Urgency and practical action were often sorely absent. Many ministers were content to read statements claiming national environmental efforts and targets that were, frankly, incredible. And if climate change and drought are truly so important, why was no prime minister or president, apart from Erdogan, present? Perhaps they are saving themselves for the Paris COP21 climate negotiations, later this month.
Nevertheless, something significant did happen in Ankara, cloaked though it was in awkward language. (You are going to have to get used to hearing about “land degradation neutrality”, or LDN – one of what is becoming an indigestible soup of initialisms.) The conference’s unanimous commitment to restore 12 million hectares of degraded land globally every year, even though voluntary, is not to be sniffed at.
The convention secretariat claimed the agreement as a breakthrough. It is probably more accurate to say that it would have been a damaging breakdown if the convention had not agreed with an objective already set by the UN General Assembly as one of the sustainable development goals in September. Brazil and other Latin American countries at first volubly resisted what amounts to a significant informal rewrite of the mandate of the convention. It appears that they feared that even a voluntary agreement might limit their sovereign ability to degrade land at will. Perhaps that's a good sign.
The original role of this UN convention, dating from the environment and development conference in Rio in 1992, was to combat desertification, especially in Africa. "Desertification" conjures up visions of an expanding Sahara, but it refers more accurately to the degradation of semi-arid lands, both by poor agricultural management and by climate change. By making "land degradation neutrality" its new target the convention has brought within its scope the restoration of degraded land everywhere on the planet, including Ireland (which you can read more about in the panel).
The "neutrality" bit is a salutary reminder that, even if we do restore 12 million hectares a year, that will not lead to any net improvement in the world's environmental conditions; it will just mean that things are not getting worse. Twelve million hectares also represents, shockingly, the quantity of land that humans degrade, through poor land management and urban expansion, each year. That's almost twice the land area of the Republic.
If implemented, land degradation neutrality could contribute significantly to food security for rising populations, although it will hardly be enough to feed the projected 2.5 billion extra people on the planet by 2050.
Rather less obviously, because restored land usually stores more carbon than degraded land, it could reduce global warming by half a degree, at least according to the convention secretariat.
The challenges remain daunting. No clear definition of restoration, in the context of the agreement, was forthcoming. Dennis Garrity, drylands ambassador for the convention, told The Irish Times that it simply meant restoring agricultural productivity. Others were under the impression that it meant full-scale ecological restoration, bringing back all a degraded site's ecosystem processes and biodiversity. Something approaching full-scale restoration would likely be necessary for significant carbon-storage gains.
"LDN is a slogan. We're stuck with it. Now we have to find out what it means and how we can measure it," Annette Cowie, a soil scientist on the convention's science-policy interface team, said bluntly.
Was there a scientific basis for the secretariat's claim that LDN could store enough carbon to reduce global warming by half a degree?
“I don’t know where that figure came from. It sounds exaggerated,” Uriel Safriel, the outgoing chairman of the convention’s committee on science and technology, said. Greenhouse gases may be not only stored but also released when land is restored. No one has done the carbon calculations on restoring 12 million hectares at unspecified sites.
The strain of translating complex environmental science into political policy, and then translating that policy into effective action, was palpable in many conversations at the conference. But this seems to be the only way that UN agencies can move forward. Whether our world has enough time, or space, left to move forward at the UN’s current pace will be the key story of this century. Perhaps that story’s likely outcome will be a little clearer after the Paris summit.
'Land degradation neutrality' What it means for Ireland
The Government showed little interest in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification summit, not even sending a Minister to represent us.
It is worth acknowledging, though, that a key conference committee was chaired, very ably by all accounts, by the Irish representative, Thomas Tichelmann, of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Tichelmann says that "all countries, including Ireland, have a lot of homework to do" on land degradation neutrality, or LDN.
The Ankara deal certainly offers an opportunity to reframe environmental issues at home and to develop innovative strategies for restoring degraded land on a scale that we have never seen before. There are plenty of degraded bogs, over- or undergrazed uplands and fragments of native forest to work on. The benefits to our agriculture, our biodiversity and our landscapes in general would rapidly outweigh the initial investment. Restoring degraded land would require much more effective co-ordination than usual between Government departments that are often quietly at loggerheads, including Agriculture, Environment, and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It would also demand a lot of input from universities and backing from groups such as the Irish Farmers’ Association and semi-State bodies such as Coillte and Bord na Móna (which has rehabilitated the bogland in the photographs below).
We have the skills and resources to become world leaders in this new field, and we could also become leaders in helping developing countries to meet LDN targets, through both Irish Aid and our development NGOs.
If we did do our homework we might even find ways to substantiate the rather hollow marketing claims that our agriculture is somehow uniquely green. As Turkish NGOs might tell President Erdogan, we urgently need to close the gap between environmental rhetoric and reality.