Restoring nature ‘the test of our generation’: UN General Assembly President


Stepping up global efforts to combat land degradation is the only way to safeguard food and water security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ward against future threats to health and the environment, the UN General Assembly President told ambassadors meeting in New York on Monday.

Addressing a high-level dialogue on desertification, land degradation and drought, Volkan Bozkir described restoring nature as “the test of our generation”, outlining the cost of inaction.

“Our planet is facing an environmental crisis that encompasses every aspect of the natural world: land, climate, and biodiversity, and pollution on land and at sea”, he said.

“Our existence and ability to thrive in this world is entirely dependent upon how we reset and rebuild our relationship with the natural world, including the health of our land.”

The General Assembly meeting, the first of its kind in a decade, is being held at a time when half of all agricultural land is degraded, threatening livelihoods but also driving extinction and intensifying climate change.

“Without a change in course, this will only get worse”, Bozkir warned.

“By 2050, global crop yields are estimated to fall by 10%, with some suffering up to a 50% reduction.  This will lead to a sharp 30% rise in world food prices, threatening progress on hunger and nutrition, as well as a myriad of associated development goals.”

The fallout could also see millions of farmers pushed into poverty, while some 135 million people could be displaced by 2045, upping the risk of instability and tension.

Bozkir brought countries together to galvanise international cooperation to avert further degradation and revive degraded land, ahead of UN summits this year on the topics of land, biodiversity and climate.

The Organisation has been clear on what steps they need to take, he said.

“First, countries should adopt and implement Land Degradation Neutrality targets, which revive land through sustainable land and water management strategies, and restore biodiversity and ecosystem functions”, he advised.

As the world embarks on 10 years of action on ecosystem restoration through 2030, Bozkir said countries should also apply lessons learned over the Decade to Fight Desertification, which concluded last year.

“Land restoration must be at the heart of existing international processes, such as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to combat climate change, the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and COVID-19 recovery and stimulus plans”, he added.

With “unsustainable agriculture” being a main driver of desertification, the Assembly President called for governments to conduct national dialogues on agricultural reform ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit in September.

He also stressed the need for “greater synergy” between peace, development and humanitarian action, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serving as a roadmap. Cooperation here can be achieved through universal implementation of a UN framework on disaster risk reduction, which he said will enhance prevention efforts.

He further stressed the need to devote a greater share of climate finance to forests and agriculture.

“For an estimated US$2.7 trillion per year – comfortably within the scope of the proposed COVID spending – we could transform the world’s economies by restoring natural ecosystems, rewarding agriculture that keeps soils healthy, and incentivising business models that prioritise renewable, recyclable or biodegradable products and services. Within a decade, the global economy could create 395 million new jobs and generate over US$10 trillion,” he said.

The rights of the world’s more than one billion agricultural workers must also not be forgotten. Most do not own the lands on which they work, he said, as currently, one per cent of farms control more than 70 per cent of the world’s farmlands.

“Investing directly in land workers is an investment in our land and our planet’s future”, Bozkir stated.

“When we enable workers to invest in their land, we support agricultural productivity. Environmental stewardship, wealth generation, civic participation, and the rule of law benefit, especially indigenous and small-scale producers, including female farmers.”

To reinforce the importance of soil for survival, Bozkir gave each representative a basil plant, along with a request to update him on their growth.

“Restoring nature is the test of our generation and indeed of this multilateral institution. This is the challenge the UN was born to meet,” he stated.

“If we upscale land action today we can safeguard global food and water security, reduce emissions, conserve biodiversity and guard against future systemic health and environmental risks. Put simply, soil is the solution,” he said.