The failure of the international community to invest in adapting to climate change will jeopardise the world's common future, the head of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has said.
The ninth UNCCD conference opens on Monday in Buenos Aires with a view to keeping the key issue of desertification on the global agenda amid the widespread economic crisis.
The experts are clear that there is much room for progress, as degraded land can be rehabilitated. And that is what the 12-day conference, which will bring together more than 2,000 people, including delegates from 191 countries, UN agencies, NGOs and others, will seek to promote.
"Investing in adaptation to climate change is not charity," UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja told DPA. "If we fail to do it we jeopardise our common future."
The world cannot turn back the clock and return the environment to the conditions of many decades ago, so "everybody must adapt", he said, emphasising that the task at hand is urgent.
In this context, the soil has crucial importance. "Desertification is not about the desert," Gnacadja noted. "It is about land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas."
Based on satellite information contained in a Global Assessment of Land Degradation and Improvement (GLADA) report on the world's soil, he explained that 24.3 percent of the land degraded over the period from 1981 to 2006 at an "unsustainable" pace close to one percent per year. However, he also said that on the positive side, 16 percent of the land improved over the same period.
"Enhancing soils anywhere enhances life everywhere," Gnacadja said. "When the land is weakened anywhere it is the global ecosystem that is suffering everywhere."
Putting a brake on climate change requires a two-pronged approach of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and carbon fixing. While many people are aware that forests are essential for carbon fixation, many do not yet understand the importance of the land for this, or how good soil improves water quality.
"The amazing thing is that carbon in the atmosphere is a pollutant, but carbon in the soil is a commodity," Gnacadja said.
Beyond climate change, however, land degradation is also linked to water scarcity and food crises, and thus to poverty, migration, political instability and even armed conflict.
There are positive experiences of land improvement at the local level, notably in the Sahel in Africa, which the UNCCD now seeks to scale up into a global trend.
While the UNCCD's last conference, two years ago in Madrid, found some common ground on the fight against desertification, it failed to provide essential tools for the effort - notably an adequate budget and a set of measurable indicators.
The Buenos Aires meeting will feature the convention's first scientific conference, which is expected to deliver a clear framework on what to measure and how to measure it.
"One of the discussions here in Buenos Aires will be on a globally agreed and commonly recognised set of indicators - impact indicators and performance indicators," Gnacadja said.
There is hope that a global climate treaty will be achieved at a major UN-backed conference in Copenhagen in December. Environment ministers meeting in Buenos Aires next week hope to set a good example for the Denmark event.