Legal & Scientific Integrity in Advancing a "Land Degradation Neutral World"

Shelley Welton
Michela Biasutti
Michael Gerrard, Columbia Law School


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 has worsened considerably. Many within the desertification community and beyond are calling for a fresh approach to the problem: the establishment of a global goal to achieve a "land-degradation neutral world." However, the call for land degradation neutrality has not been universally celebrated, particularly given the questionable track record of past "no net loss" policies. This article looks at ways 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 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." Three key issues emerge for further consideration on the path to a "land-degradation neutral world": (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.