For example, notwithstanding varied practices across the world, land use, land-use change, and forestry cause 23% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. Forests also present a significant global carbon stock, and their destruction will affect a large part of the carbon stored on land. We need a transformative change in the way we use land, if we are to continue to reap the benefits of nature and avoid a catastrophic collapse of our planet’s ecosystems. The onus is now on decision-makers to find efficient ways to use land and its natural capital to meet the triple challenge of food security, decent livelihoods for farmers, and environmental sustainability.
The challenges to and solutions for sustainable land use were recently discussed at this year’s OECD Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum under the theme Securing natural capital: Resilience, risk management and COVID-19. Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, provided opening remarks and highlighted the urgency to protect our natural capital and its ecosystem services, which are worth USD140 trillion per year – more than one and a half times the size of global GDP. Mr. Gurría noted, “We know these facts, we know the evidence, yet global natural capital stocks continue to deteriorate. One-quarter of animal and plant species are facing extinction. On land, deforestation continues, with over 70% of terrestrial land degraded.”
These issues were further explored in a dedicated session on ‘Securing natural capital on land’ during the Forum, with the panellists keen to expand on the realities of sustainable land use in the age of COVID-19.
What were the main takeaways from the discussion on securing natural capital on land?
Here are four actions for governments to promote sustainable land use:
Measure and quantify ecosystem services. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. Better understanding the different facets of ecosystem services and quantifying the benefits they provide through appropriate indicators is hugely important for reliable quantitative assessments. This can better inform decision-making related to land use. These indicators need to capture the different ecosystem services provided by land for different users, from provision of quality soil for crop production for farmers and rainwater storage for water utilities, to geological stability for housing developers. The best way to identify the most appropriate and usable indicators for such quantitative assessments is to co-design them with decision-makers and relevant stakeholders. Such an approach has been put to use, for example, by the Dutch Water boards, which created a tool to quantify ecosystem services and how they are affected by local landscape management; it can show the multifunctionalities of the same ecosystem and its benefits for different users.
As we look to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, land use will play an integral part in addressing many of the key socio-economic challenges ahead, including avoiding possible emergence of new zoonotic diseases. Policy makers have the opportunity to provide an innovative, data-driven response to current obstacles, taking into account local communities and indigenous populations, while also ensuring the preservation of natural capital on land and the ecosystem services it provides. It is time to find a balance between economic prosperity and environmental sustainability in order to preserve our natural capital for generations to come.