DSI Postdoc Contributes to U.N. Study on Land Restoration

Kyle Davis, a postdoctoral fellow with the Data Science Institute, is a contributing author on a United Nations study highlighting the enormous potential that land restoration has to reduce climate change and achieve sustainable development around the world.   

The study, published today by the U.N.’s  International Resource Panel, found that rehabilitating land supports 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by the world’s nations as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Complementing the recent UN special report on Climate Change and Land, this study focuses on the solutions needed to ensure that the planet's finite land resources benefit both people and nature.


Davis, an environmental scientist who specializes in food-system sustainability,  was one of 37 authors to contribute to the study.  He wrote a chapter detailing how land restoration efforts can help the U.N. achieve Sustainable Development Goal 12: “Ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns.” 

In that chapter, Davis argues it’s essential to understand the role of trade in achieving sustainability, and to acknowledge that international trade often leads to a separation of consumer demand for a certain food or resource from the land that produced it. His recent work of palm oil, for instance, showed that growing global demand for bioenergy – a benign effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – has led to the unfortunate expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and the widespread degradation of its forests and other natural lands. He argues that accounting for these interconnections when developing solutions for sustainable land use can ensure that land degradation is reduced rather than simply moved from one country or region in the world to another. 

Currently, about a quarter of the world’s land is degraded, and the U.N. recognizes that global action on land restoration is needed to meet its target of restoring 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes by 2030. Davis cites strategies that can help achieve this goal, including certification programs to trace goods through supply chains, and financial incentives to encourage consumers and farmers to make more responsible land use choices. But to successfully restore degraded lands, Davis says nations must work together to ensure that the world's finite land resources meet the various demands of society while preserving the critical functions of nature. This can mean helping to improve the productivity of croplands to increase food supply while avoiding agricultural expansion; offering incentives that promote reforestation; and using land for multiple purposes simultaneously (e.g., producing solar and wind energy in livestock grazing areas).

Since coming to DSI as a postdoctoral fellow last year, Davis has co authored six papers. He has written about ways to make food production more nutritious and sustainable, how the international food trade can help address unequal access to food, and how climate affects crop production in India. In so doing, he has established a reputation as a leader in the hybrid field of environmental data science, which is why the U.N. asked for his input and advice for this new rep;ort.  

“With increasing globalization the idiom ‘think globally and act locally’ is truer now than ever,” says Davis,” especially since decisions on what goods to consume and the origin of those goods can impact land resources on the other side of the world.”

The report was done by the International Resource Panel (IRP), a group of independent experts established by the United Nations Environment Programme. The panel writes reports that distill the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic findings about global resources. 

By Robert Florida 


For more information or to arrange an interview with Kyle Davis, please contact Robert Florida, Assistant Director of Communications for the Data Science Institute, rsf8@columbia.edu or (201) 725-6435

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