When you’re waiting for the summer to start in the UK and it’s raining for the ninth day in a row, it’s hard to imagine that large areas across the world are suffering from desertification.

But it’s a growing problem across the globe that requires urgent action and the focus of World Environment Day 2024 on June 5th. Taking place in the host country of Saudi Arabia.

World Environment Day is the United Nations’ annual event and environment programme raising awareness and action on environmental issues, they achieve this by organising community events to empower people to make positive changes in their everyday lives.

Each year the focus of World Environment Day is on a specific problem (in 2023 it was beating plastic pollution).

Under the slogan “Our land. Our future. We are #GenerationRestoration.”  this year the focus is on land restoration, desertification, and drought resilience.

Here’s what you need to know about the issues, and the solutions.

What is Desertification?

Hear the word ‘desert’ and you probably picture sand dunes. Or if you’re being technical, recall the dictionary definition of a landscape with very low precipitation.

Although many of the areas impacted by desertification are ‘drylands’ and drought has been a factor in their decline, desertification has a wider meaning and has severe environmental consequences and ecological impact, affecting a large portion of the world's population.

DESERTIFICATION = Previously fertile land that can no longer sustain plant and animal life.

In other words, land where the soil quality has degraded to such an extent that nothing will grow.

In the latest estimates*, an area the size of Russia and India combined currently suffers from land degradation.

And it’s not just in those countries that you’d usually associate with a desert landscape.

How bad is the desertification problem?

According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, 75 percent of Spain's land is battling conditions that could lead to desertification, making it the European nation most threatened by the problem.

Easter parades in Malaga this year were battered by torrential rain, but it was a massive relief for the residents as it was the first significant rainfall for more than 12 months. Southern Spain is suffering from drought with three years of below average rainfall together with record high temperatures.

It’s in these increasingly long dry spells that ‘Europe’s Kitchen Garden’ grows the fruit and vegetables we pick up in our supermarkets.  In Almeria on Spain’s south coast, the dry landscape is covered in plastic greenhouses. They’re spread over almost 150 square miles and are visible from space. The huge amount of water needed to sustain the crops in these greenhouses is diminishing water reserves. And the planet's land is suffering.

What Causes Desertification

Deforestation: Agriculture is the single biggest cause of deforestation. Cattle ranches and soya plantations (primarily used to feed cattle) have replaced large areas of forests across South America. The scale is such that beef production is the main reason for deforestation in the world’s tropical forests. In Indonesia and the Congo, forests are cleared to meet the global demand for palm oil, used in the manufacture of food and cosmetics.

Deforestation upsets the balance of nutrients in the soil. It removes the roots that help bind the soil together and exposes the soil to the elements, leaving it at risk of being eroded and washed or blown away.

The increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that comes from fewer trees contributes to global warming and removing large areas of trees from the natural environment leads to a decrease in localised rainfall.

Drought:  Increasing temperatures and long dry spells take their toll and dry out the earth, and climate change is leading to longer and hotter periods of drought. Wildfires are more likely to occur in these conditions, destroying trees and other plant life.

Intensive farming and growing crops unsuited to the local conditions: Native plant life is cleared to be replaced with plants that aren’t naturally suited to the local conditions. They need more water, pesticides, chemical fertilisers, and other agricultural methods that damage the soil.  

All these factors contribute to soil degradation, reducing its ability to sustain life.

What Are The Solutions?

Reforestation (replanting or expanding a forest area) and afforestation (creating a new forest) can help revive degraded soil. There are projects attempting to do this at a local and international level, including the Great Green Wall initiative run by the African Union. The project launched in 2007 and aims to restore one hundred million hectares of degraded land across twenty-two countries.

In Uzbekistan, re-greening of the Aral desert is underway by planting trees and shrubs across one million hectares of what used to be the Aral Sea. This includes drought-resistant shrubs that can survive the frequent sandstorms.

Those are just two of the national largescale campaigns. What about individual actions?

What Can You Do?

Global problems can make us feel helpless, and that we can’t do anything to make a difference.  But mass impact can come from enough individual actions.

Locally sourced food

Things we can do as individuals:

·       Eating a locally based, sustainably sourced diet where possible: Making food choices that don’t require intensive farming. Reversing decades of food trends and agricultural habits and personal habits won’t happen overnight, but individual actions and choices are how we instigate change.

·       Making educated choices such as opting for palm oil free products, reducing the global demand for palm oil.

·       Consuming only what we need – whether that’s food, clothes or anything else we buy. Lower consumption en masse leads to lower impact on the planet.

·       Recycling: Recycling more, and more effectively with the aim of sending nothing to landfill.

In landfill, the decomposing waste produces gases such as methane, that contribute to global warming. By improving our recycling rates and methods and sending zero to landfill, we can help reduce the rate of global warming on a national and global scale.

Find out more about how landfill contributes to greenhouse gases 

Recycling and using recycled products also reduces our reliance on virgin materials. Closed loop and circular economy services can take that reliance down to zero with a process where waste material is recycled back into new versions of the original product. You can see it in action with our closed-loop paper service. High grade paper waste collected by First Mile is used to create FSC-certified copier paper – and sold back to our clients.

How You Can Help Reforest the World via Ecosia

tree plantings

We can also support organisations like Ecosia. They’re a search engine that uses ad revenues to plant trees – the more searches done through Ecosia, the more they raise. To date they’ve planted 207,786,060 trees across the globe.

They focus their efforts on areas where reforestation is needed, over thirty-five countries so far. Listen to our episode of Climate Heroes podcast with Georgina Wilson-Powell who told us all about the amazing platform, and maybe opt for an Ecosia search next time you need to Google.

Why is World Environment Day important to First Mile?

You know us – environmental movements that raise awareness and aim to make a change for the better will always get our support. Our primary goal is to have a positive impact on the world environment, and we achieve that by making it easier for customers to recycle more, reducing their carbon footprint.   A global event, focused on positive environmental actions, is something we want to get behind.

There may be no immediate threat of desertification in the UK, but we’re part of a global community and we can take steps to reduce our personal impact.

At First Mile that means spreading the word on sustainable waste management, so if your business is ready to make a change, we’d love to give you an introduction to the First Mile services.

The final word should come from the World Environment Day website:

 “We cannot turn back time, but we can grow forests, green our cities, harvest rainwater and eat soil-friendly foods. We can be the generation that finally makes peace with land.” 

*The UN July 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Report