What if a wall could restore degrading land or save biodiversity? Imagine that it stretched from Senegal to Djibouti, was about three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef, and made entirely of trees and vegetation. With an influx of funding from a coalition of international development banks and governments, that wall is one step closer to becoming reality.

In 2007, the African Union launched the Great Green Wall initiative, as part of Declaration 137 VIII. The goal was to restore Africa’s degraded landscape by planting vegetation about 10 miles wide and over 4,000 miles long in the Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The goal has since evolved to address not only degradation, but land use, peacebuilding, and climate change.

Climate change is particularly dangerous for the Sahel. Separating the arid Sahara to the north and tropical savannas to the south, the Sahel has been subject to severe droughts and shorter and more intense rainy seasons. As temperatures in the Sahel are expected to rise 1.5 times higher than the global average, there is a risk that climate change will exacerbate existing conditions.

To address these concerns, the Great Green Wall initiative aims to:

  • restore 100 million hectares of degraded land;
  • sequester 250 million tons of carbon; and
  • create 10 million jobs in rural areas.

The estimated cost is at least $33 billion to achieve these goals by 2030.

This year, the initiative received a pledge of $14 billion from a coalition that includes the World Bank and the French government, among others. The funding provides an opportunity to devote more resources to the initiative. However, realizing the Great Green Wall’s goals will require stakeholders to keep in mind three important factors:

(1) The Great Green Wall is part of a broader international policy framework.

The framework includes numerous treaties and principles relating to the environment, including the Rio Conventions on Biodiversity (CBD), Desertification (UNCCD), and Climate Change (the Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).

  • CBD focuses on the conservation of biodiversity, and the sustainable use, and fair and equitable sharing, of its components.
  • UNCCD ties the environment to sustainable land management, with a focus on mitigating the effects of drought and desertification in Africa. The UNCCD has a target of land degradation neutrality by 2030.
  • The Convention on Climate Change provides an overarching structure that looks towards stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous human induced interference with the climate system (Art. 2). Under the Convention on Climate Change is the Paris Agreement, which codifies States’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and requests that each State outline its post-2020 climate actions, or nationally determined contributions.

Important to the framework are Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): interrelated global goals, designed to provide a blueprint for addressing challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice. The Goals were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Great Green Wall addresses 15 of the 17 SDGs, with a focus on SDG 15, which seeks to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”

The Great Green Wall offers an opportunity for States to implement their nationally determined contributions and support international commitments. However, the Great Green Wall is only one piece of the puzzle of land restoration. Further action is needed to protect the environment and address climate change.

(2) Achieving the Great Green Wall will take a coordinated effort.

At present, the Great Green Wall is less than a fourth of the way done and requires a total of $33 billion to meet its objectives. From a financial standpoint, success will require increased investment from stakeholders. As the Wall includes intervention zones across at least eleven States, success will also entail cross-border information sharing, strengthening value chains and local markets, capacity-building, and incorporating State-level environmental priorities, which may include creating climate resilient infrastructure.

(3) Desertification of the Sahel more than an ecological issue.

By definition, desertification is “the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by climate change and mainly human activities.” However, the consequences of desertification go beyond the ecological. Desertification in the Sahel has been linked to food insecurity, higher food prices, famine, and child malnutrition. Further, consequences include migration and violence from competition over natural resources. For the millions of people living across the Sahel and in neighboring areas, the success of the Great Green Wall will also depend on finding solutions to the related socio-economic issues.

As U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said, “nature-based solutions – such as Africa’s Great Green Wall – are especially promising.” Whether the Great Green Wall can deliver on its promise will depend in part on whether stakeholders can do the following: (1) continue to integrate the initiative in the international framework, (2) coordinate with one another on implementation, and (3) address the social and economic dimensions of this ecological problem.