Why businesses must care about sustainable land use

By Ibrahim Thiaw, Undersecretary-General of the United Nations; Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) & Svein Tore Holsether, President and Chief Executive Officer, Yara International | May 25, 2022

Our social and economic well-being is dependent on land. If adequately and sustainably managed, land regulates water and nutrient cycling, supports biodiversity, stores carbon and provides businesses with resources and citizens with employment and sustenance.

However, 75% of Earth’s terrestrial environment has already been altered by human actions. In the last two centuries alone, people have converted or modified 70% of the world’s grasslands, 50% of the savannah, 45% of the temperate deciduous forest and 27% of the tropical forest, according to a report by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Almost a quarter of land has seen a reduction in productivity due to degradation since 1970. Between 1997 and 2011, the change in land use caused losses averaging $20 trillion worth of ecosystem services annually.

Transitioning from our current extractive and extensive land-use model towards sustainable land use requires businesses to take bold action and to do so immediately – we are running out of time.

The recently released Champions for Nature CEO briefing “Leading a sustainable land use transition” summarizes three reasons why land is a key component of a corporate sustainability strategy and sets out recommendations for businesses to lead the transition towards sustainable land use.

“If you’re going to grow enough food for a growing population and take care of the land it grows on, we have to look at the full value chain. We are setting up partnerships with food chain players to design role models for the future. This is the future of farming.” Svein Tore Holsether, President and Chief Executive Officer, Yara International

Reason #1: To achieve net-zero targets, firms must halt deforestation and conversionf

The forest, land and agriculture (FLAG) sector has the potential to deliver up to 30% of needed mitigation actions from now through 2050. In addition to the much-needed energy transition, the prevention of deforestation and conversion, and increased investment in sustainable and restorative land use should be central to companies’ climate commitments.

In particular, for companies with exposure to FLAG emissions, decarbonizing land use is critical to achieving their net zero targets. According to the Science-based Target Initiative (SBTi) Corporate Net-Zero Standard, these companies need to reduce land-based emissions by at least 80% by 2050.

Near-term targets are proposed in the draft FLAG Science-Based Target Setting Guidance, including a requirement to publicly commit to zero deforestation covering all scopes of emissions.

Reason #2: Sustainable land use mitigates risks for businesses

Many businesses – especially food and beverage companies, as well as pulp and paper operations – depend directly on the land for direct operation and supply chain. However, land-related risks to businesses are not always immediately visible, as their dependence on land is often embedded in the supply chains.

Land use-related reputational, market, legal and financial risks are also rising. Governments are taking more ambitious action to conserve and restore land, evidenced by the EU’s landmark legal proposals to ban imports of beef, palm oil, soy, cocoa and other products linked to deforestation.

Performing a materiality assessment to understand a company’s impacts and dependence on land can provide a good starting point for risk mitigation.

Reason #3: Sustainable land use creates business opportunities and resilient jobs

A sustainable transition in food, land and ocean-use systems can create almost $3.6 trillion in annual value and 191 million jobs by 2030. High potential business opportunities in this space include ecotourism, new precision-agriculture technologies, sustainable forest management, supply chain innovations, and a circular economy in textiles and sustainable inputs.

Preserving and restoring land resources is also for the future generations. Food systems are the world’s largest employer of young people. Business investments are needed to develop the skillsets for them to pursue meaningful work or become ‘ecopreneurs’ in the new restoration economy.

Case study in regenerative farming practices

Together with food value chain players, crop nutrition company Yara International is partnering with a global dairy company to transform current farm practices, to optimize land use, and to maximize nutrient supply to achieve greater yield and quality, while reducing emissions and meeting environmental targets.

The companies work hand-in-hand with dairy farmers to support them in their transition towards regenerative agriculture practices. So far, the work has focused on implementing regenerative agriculture practices on selected pioneer farms in the European Union.

To date, many solutions have proven to be viable, and the collaboration is proud to share remarkable progress: In eight months, the farmers have achieved an increase of 11% in green yield, a reduction of 2.7% of their greenhouse gas emissions, all while increasing their milk production by 17%.

CEOs have a role to play in land restoration

All businesses have a key role to play in driving a restorative and sustainable land use transition within their operations and across their value chain. Some of the key actions include:

  • Work with farmers to adopt integrated, productive and regenerative agricultural practices that target greater soil health and resilience.
  • Minimise demand-side impacts by reducing food loss and waste and shaping demand to be healthier, more nutritious and sustainable.
  • Commit to transparency, disclosure, and accountability in all transactions that impact land resources, especially transparent supply chains and rapidly phase out deforestation and land conversion.
  • Mitigate FLAG sector emissions and invest in high-quality land-based natural climate solutions; integrate soil carbon measures across supply chain to ensure that regenerative agricultural practices contribute to healthy and resilient soils.
  • Ensure equitable and inclusive supply chains that support farmer livelihoods and engage indigenous peoples and local communities, according to free, prior and informed consent.
  • Advocate for the appropriate economic incentives, regulatory frameworks and policy reforms that do not distort markets or harm human and environmental health.

“Without large-scale and concerted efforts to protect, sustainably manage, and restore our land resources, it will not be possible to ensure food and water security, achieve climate targets, and halt biodiversity loss. We cannot stop the climate crisis today, biodiversity loss tomorrow, and land degradation the day after; we need to tackle them in tandem.” —Ibrahim Thiaw

Land use needs to go to top of global agenda

2022 is the year to put land at the top of the economic agenda. Land is at the centre and connects all three Rio conventions – the UN Convention to Combat Desertification COP15 in May, UN Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in August, and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP27 in November.

Land isn’t just dirt beneath our feet. It’s where life thrives, underpinning resilient planet, society and economy. Business CEOs have an economic and societal imperative to make sure that land is managed to strengthen the resilience of their consumer base, the natural world and for their own long-term viability.

This article was first published by World Economic Forum.

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