By: Shelley Welton, Michela Biasutti & Michael B. Gerrard
It is no secret that the fight against desertification isn’t going well. In the two decades since the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (“UNCCD”) came into force, desertification-defined as degradation in the quality of “arid, semi-arid, and dry subhumid” land areas -has worsened considerably. Recent United Nations estimates suggest that fifty-two percent of drylands currently under agricultural cultivation are moderately or severely degraded, and 12 million hectares of productive land become barren each year due to desertification and drought. And while drylands are the focus of the UNCCD, the challenge isn’t limited to them: somewhere around twenty percent of land worldwide is moderately or severely degraded and most experts predict this percentage will increase in coming decades.
This article looks at ways to avoid these risks and to advance global land degradation neutrality into a concept-and, eventually, a program-that has legal and scientific integrity, such that it delivers tangible gains. We do so by turning backwards to move forward, drawing on lessons learned from two ongoing, land-centered policy attempts similarly framed around goals of neutrality: the “no net loss” wetlands policy embraced by the United States’ Wetlands Mitigation Banking (“WMB”) program, as representative of a broad class of “biodiversity offset” programs emerging around the world; and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (“REDD+”), an international program aimed at preserving, enhancing, and restoring forests as carbon “sinks.” These examples provide potential frameworks for progress, but also act as harbingers of some of the challenges that land degradation neutrality may encounter in moving from theory to practical implementation. Three key issues emerge for further consideration on the path to a “land-degradation neutral world” (“LDNW”): (1) how to define and measure the problem-“land degradation”-in scientifically and legally meaningful ways; (2) how to successfully pursue “neutrality” as an organizing principle; and (3) how to balance the local and the global, and the public and the private, in the administration of such a program. Each of these issues exists at the nexus of science and law, and they are interrelated in ways that we parse in our discussion.