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Estonia to represent the EU at the UN Desertification Conference in China

Minister of the Environment of Estonia Siim Kiisler and Director-General DG Environment Daniel Calleja Crespo

From September 6 to 16, the Republic of Estonia, holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2017, is representing the EU at the 13th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)  in Ordos, China. Siim Kiisler, the Estonian Minister for the Environment, will take part and make an opening statement on behalf of EU in the high-level segment of the conference on September 11 and 12.

"The world loses around 12 million hectares of arable land each year due to desertification, land degradation and drought. This creates insecurity and forced displacement of people as well as food shortages in the affected areas, 20 million tonnes of grain could be grown on an area of that size," said Minister Kiisler, giving an example of the extent of the transboundary problem of land degradation. Close to 2 billion people are directly or indirectly affected by the consequences of desertification and land degradation, including many EU countries.

The main goal of the the 13th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP13) is to adopt a new strategy for the period 2018–2030 that will contribute to achieving the objectives of the Convention and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals. The conference will also shine a light on the status and rights of the people most severely affected by land degradation and drought. Additionally, the Parties will discuss innovative funding solutions in order to increase private investment in land rehabilitation, and sustainable land management projects.

Similarly to other countries, Estonia has implemented various measures to improve the condition of its land, for example by restoring forests and wetlands and rehabilitating quarries. All these activities are closely linked to the objectives of the UNCCD which aims to preserve and increase land resources and land-based ecosystem services. "Estonia has done its fair share to improve the condition of its land, which may not amount to much on the global scale, but is still a significant contribution to combating land degradation," says Minister Kiisler, adding that gathering the positions of all EU Member States and representing them is an important task that carries a lot of responsibility. "Especially considering that much is expected from Europe in the framework of this COP," added the Minister.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is an international agreement that aims to halt desertification and land degradation through the promotion of sustainable land management. The Convention has 196 parties – 195 countries and the European Union, this time represented by Estonia. Thus far, more than 160 countries have confirmed that they are affected by land degradation.

Estonia joined the UN Convention on Desertification in 2011. Even though Estonia is not on the list of countries affected by desertification, our land and soil have their own share of problems. In many areas our soil fertility has significantly declined due to logging, wetland draining and unsustainable land management practises. Furthermore, extraction of mineral resources has also had an adverse effect on the natural environment, resulting in serious land degradation in many areas.

Estonia has taken the following measures to combat land degradation:

  • Planting trees and restoring forests contributes significantly to halting land degradation because it helps soil regeneration, and prevents soil erosion. Additionally, these measures also contribute to climate change mitigation.
  • Restoring wetlands in areas of drained bogs is another example. In addition to serving as reservoirs of biodiversity and clean water, bogs act as important buffers to climate change because the peat that accumulates in the oxygen-deficient environment binds large amounts of carbon. Although in many countries the majority of bogs have been destroyed; Estonia stands out with its uniquely expansive and diverse bog landscapes.
  • In addition to restoring bogs, quarries are also being rehabilitated. Reforestation offers one solution, but it is largely dependent on prior land-use type. In Estonia, most quarries are located where bogs, raised bogs, and forests used to be, which makes them ideally suited for reforestation after extraction has ceased. Estonia began reforesting its depleted quarries already in the 1930s, and nowadays, approximately 170 hectares of forest is sown and planted annually in place of former oil shale quarries.

Facts about Desertification

  • Desertification is a process that decreases soil fertility, resulting in soil destruction, and eventually, areas that once were fertile become deserts. Desertification occurs in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas.
  • Desertification is mainly caused by human activity, e.g. overexploitation of land, overgrazing, deforestation, poor irrigation techniques, etc. In addition, natural phenomena (e.g. droughts, floods), that are exacerbated by climate change, play an important role as well.
  • Each year we lose an estimated 12 million hectares of arable land worldwide due to land desertification. That is 23 hectares per minute! 20 million tonnes of grain could have been grown on an area of equivalent size.
  • Desertification affects directly or indirectly almost 2 billion people around the world, and a third of the Earth’s land surface (over 4 billion hectares).
  • The problem is further exacerbated by global population growth, as new areas need to be taken into use to grow sufficient amounts of food.
  • The lives of 2.6 billion people depend directly on agriculture, but 52% of the land used for agriculture suffers from soil degradation.
  • These problems extend beyond African drylands, where two thirds of the continent is coverd with deserts or wetlands. Many European countries are also affected by these processes. What is more, in several European countries, land degradation is occurring at a much faster pace than elsewhere. For example, in Spain, one fifth of the land is endangered by desertification.
  • Desertification is also one of the major drivers of forced migration. If current trends continue, nearly 50 million people will have to leave their homes in the next 10 years due to desertification and land degradation.

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