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WSL researcher at the World Climate Summit in Paris

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To combat soil degradation, the United Nations is working on an ambitious new initiative to remediate 12 million hectares of degraded soil per year - an area equivalent to half the size of Great Britain. Official talks will take place on the sidelines of the 2015Climate Change Conference in Paris - and a WSL researcher is involved as a technical expert.


The ambitious goal is to invest two billion US dollars each year into remediating degraded soils. Every minute, 23 hectares of fertile land are lost worldwide – the equivalent of about 32 soccer pitches. A strategy to counter this is known as "Land Degradation Neutrality" (LDN): at least as much degraded lands shall be improved as are degraded every year.

The idea behind the initiative is to establish an investment platform providing funds and technical aid for rehabilitating degraded land and promoting sustainable business models on the regained land. The target is to achieve degradation neutrality by 2030. The financial resources will not only come from state development aid but, in a new development, also from the private financial sector.

The initiative is spearheaded by the Global Mechanism of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). One of their technical experts is forest ecologist and data scientist Matthias Häni from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL. Häni, who calls himself a "data whizz", recently carried out a data analysis as part of a study commissioned by the UNCCD.

Impact of development projects

The results supply, for the very first time, quantitative data on the so-called impact investment. In addition to risk and return, this type of investment into sustainable projects introduces a third variable: impact. How to measure this represents "a huge gap in existing research", says Häni. He points out how difficult it is to determine, for example, soil erosion prevented by hedges or the number of children saved by a new well.

For their analysis, Häni, along with Philippe Saner from the University of Zurich, evaluated the global flows of development funds from all the countries around the world that either supply or receive development aid. In the period investigated alone (2012/13), a total of almost 130 billion US dollars was invested in over 4,000 development projects or associated with technical support.

Häni and Saner's evaluation, however, is not just the very first trend analysis in these cash flows. In addition, it allows them to earmark every project in the three major UN conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification, all launched in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to these "Rio markers", funds can be invested according to their impact, for example into projects focused on climate protection or rather on biodiversity or soil conservation.

Two billion hectares of soil to be rehabilitated

According to UN estimates some two billion hectares of previously fertile soil have been degraded worldwide (in other words, has become unusable for food cultivation due to inappropriate use, deforestation or erosion) and could be rehabilitated. Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) means that soil loss and soil rehabilitation balance each other out. The UN considers LDN as an important means to fight poverty and hunger.

Decisive talks on LDN will be held in Paris on 5 and 6 December as part of the 2015 Global Landscape Forum on land use, the biggest side event at the UN Climate Change Conference. WSL researcher Matthias Häni will be attending as a technical consultant.