Desertification and Climate Change


Photo credit: IISD

Lindsay C. Stringer, Professor of Environment & Development, University of Leeds, and Mark Reed, Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation, Newcastle University, UK

Land Degradation, Desertification and Climate Change: Assessing, Anticipating and Adapting to Future Change


Climate change and land degradation can drive or intensify one another through both positive and negative feedbacks. Higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and more extreme weather resulting from climate change can combine with human-induced drivers of change to fuel degradation processes, such as soil erosion. In turn, land degradation reduces the benefits and services that ecosystems provide to society, with potentially devastating consequences for food production, human wellbeing and the climate. This is because many forms of land degradation release carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. Around a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from land use activities. It is therefore surprising that land degradation and climate change are still largely dealt with separately.

While much is known about the processes and effects of land degradation and climate change as individual problems, little is understood about the links between them. Less still is known about how these processes are likely to interact in different socio-ecological systems around the world and what this means for society’s abilities to adapt to these interlinked issues. Even within international policy, efforts have been limited in addressing land degradation and climate change in a joined-up way. While the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the new climate deal agreed by Parties to the UNFCCC in Paris in December 2015 provide a new and useful opportunity to harness synergy in actions addressing these problems, moving from policy rhetoric to substantive on-the-ground action remains challenging.

To understand where targeted interventions that address climate change and land degradation would be most valuable, it is important to understand how vulnerable a particular community or ecosystem is to the combined effects of these two challenges. This can be achieved by identifying how exposed the system is to the two processes. If the system is exposed, we then need to understand its sensitivity to those changes. If the system is both exposed and sensitive, we need to assess how easy or difficult it is to adapt. Adaptation encompasses a range of actions that can involve changing the ways in which communities and ecosystems interact and function so that livelihoods and wellbeing can be maintained. Systems that are able to adapt easily are considered resilient; those that are constrained in their adaptations can be considered vulnerable.
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Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.