15 March 2016
Can Three Indicators Spur National Implementation Across the Rio Conventions? Insights from the UNCCD
UN Photo/Kibae Park
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As all UN Member States work to develop their national plans for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they will encounter challenges in ensuring policy coherence among the 17 Goals and with existing international obligations.

As all UN Member States work to develop their national plans for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they will encounter challenges in ensuring policy coherence among the 17 Goals and with existing international obligations. Many of the obligations under multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) are complementary to the objectives under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but the task of setting priorities, selecting comparable indicators, and ensuring coherence and comparability in monitoring and evaluation among the Goal areas and other priority sectors presents a daunting challenge for national governments to operationalize. The experience of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which has sought to identify indicators that would be relevant for the three Rio Conventions (the UNCCD plus the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), offers insights into these challenges and lessons for how synergies among issue areas could be best captured and built into the framework for implementation planning.

In its inaugural Science-Policy Brief published ahead of the Paris Climate Change Conference, the Science-Policy Interface (SPI) of the UNCCD noted that the world’s croplands, grazing lands and rangelands have lost 25-75% of their original soil organic carbon pool, and suggested that achieving full accounting of soil organic carbon as a terrestrial carbon sink under a future climate agreement “is both essential and feasible.” The brief noted, however, that maximizing the potential return on investment in sustainable land management (SLM) practices requires a strategic, integrative approach across the efforts to respond to “the grand environmental challenges of our time” – climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss.

This same challenge was previously highlighted in an Impulse Report prepared for the 3rd UNCCD Scientific Conference, in March 2015. This report noted that poor understanding of the complexity of feedback among these three processes and their impact on ecosystem services “limits our capacity for anticipatory adaptation.” Subsequently, in its analysis of how to refine the UNCCD monitoring and evaluation framework in view of the post-2015 development agenda, the SPI noted that, while integrated frameworks exist at sub-national, national, regional and/or global scale that “could bring more consistency to reporting under the three Rio Conventions,” implementing and operationalizing a monitoring and evaluation framework and system for reporting on land issues common to the three Conventions “remains a challenge for the global community.” In addition to raising awareness of these interconnections, the UNCCD has worked to lay the groundwork for an interconnected monitoring framework regarding these issues.

The Scientific Case for Synergies

Ahead of the twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD (UNCCD COP 12), the SPI commissioned an assessment of scientific evidence that SLM – a key focus of the UNCCD’s 10-Year Strategy (2008-2018) – also contributes to the objectives of the UNFCCC and the strategic goals of the CBD and its associated Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The report included a detailed matrix analyzing the “integrative potential” of three land-based progress indicators adopted at UNCCD COP 11, “relative to each other and with respect to land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss.” The three indicators are: trends in land cover; trends in land productivity or functioning of the land; and trends in carbon stocks above and below ground. Based on this analysis the assessment report found, inter alia, that SLM practices, “which include the judicious use or replacement of chemical fertilizers and pesticides as well as the enhancement of soil organic matter,” support biodiversity on agricultural land and minimize adverse impacts on natural ecosystems. It further noted that SLM practices assist in climate change adaptation by reducing vulnerability to climate change, for example by boosting soil water holding capacity. The report concluded that managing land degradation through SLM therefore constitutes “an intersection of interests” between the Rio Conventions and the SDGs.

The UNCCD Secretariat subsequently proposed that the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG indicators (IAEG-SDGs) adopt the three biophysical indicators as part of an indicator framework for measuring progress on SDG target 15:3 (By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world). The UNCCD proposal called for countries to adopt the same “nested” (combined bottom-up and top-down) approach for monitoring the “land degradation neutrality” (LDN) target, as has been used to measure progress under the UNCCD’s 10-Year Strategy, namely through combining the three proposed indicators with “formal and narrative indicators at national and local scale, based on existing data collection systems and databases, and local storylines.” The SPI assessment suggested that countries can use this approach to validate “relatively straightforward” local or global indicators based on established monitoring systems, with qualitative data and analysis from case studies and expert judgment “to help provide context with specific information that indicators often miss.”

This approach echoes the methodology adopted by the multidisciplinary Global Land Use and Sustainability (GLOBALANDS) project, which found that science-based models need “embedding” with relevant stakeholders to provide consistent and politically relevant scenarios. The GLOBALANDS report noted that land-related indicators developed through such an integrated approach could also be applied “within the process of regionally or nationally implementing the SDGs.”

This view was reinforced by an expert meeting held in February 2016 to further develop a land degradation indicator, co-organized by the UNCCD and CBD, Global Environment Facility/Scientific and Technology Advisory Panel (GEF/STAP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). Among their conclusions, the experts noted that the three UNCCD “sub-indicators” (land cover/land cover change, land productivity and carbon stocks above and below ground), “should primarily be based on national official data sources and take advantage of existing reporting mechanisms.” They further noted that by combining the proposed indicators with other relevant data sources (such as FAO’s deliveries on LADA2), countries would derive greater synergies in monitoring other relevant SDG targets, including 2.4 (sustainable agriculture) and 15.2 (sustainable forest management). They highlighted, for example, the usefulness of these indicators in evaluating sustainable land (and forest) management systems, their spatial extent and distribution as well as assessing integrated and sustainable land use planning approaches at multiple scales.

Participants at the meeting also agreed that further work was needed to provide a standardized approach to derive the sub-indicators and further refine the framework and set of guiding principles in order to help build monitoring and reporting capacities at the national level. Among their recommendations, the participants requested the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) secretariat and Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS) of the FAO to develop further guidance on monitoring and reporting on soil organic carbon stocks. The co-organizers also committed themselves to work on the development of a roadmap, work plan and the terms of reference to implement indicator 15.3.1 and, based on these inputs, to work with the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) secretariat to develop a concept note on a possible global partnership to assist countries with monitoring and reporting on progress towards SDG target 15.3.

Measuring What Matters

With both the scientific basis and practicality of the integrative potential of the land-based progress indicators established, the next task is capitalizing on the integrative potential documented here by making it fully operational within the combined contexts of the monitoring and assessment approaches of the three Rio conventions – Science Policy Interface Report to UNCCD COP 12.

If the rationale for integrating land-based progress indicators has been established, the question remains: how does one proceed to implement a joint framework in a context where each Convention has its own monitoring and assessment approach and established national priorities?

In order to help countries to operationalize a joint approach, the UNCCD initiated a 14-country pilot project, carried out during 2014-2015 with funding from the Republic of Korea, aimed at translating the global LDN goal into voluntary national targets. The project provided the pilot countries with standardized global datasets to test the three land-based indicators at national and subnational levels. Countries were then assisted to implement a step-wise process that includes: identifying, mapping and quantifying land degradation trends; identifying land management options that can stop or reverse these negative trends; reviewing existing national action programmes (NAPs) and identifying the mix of financial, scientific and administrative frameworks, as well as land management options, required to address the identified negative trends; and setting LDN national voluntary targets.

Drawing on initial outcomes of the pilot, the UNCCD’s CST highlighted four main hurdles to coordinated monitoring at the national level, and recommendations for tackling them, which could also provide some building blocks for creating synergies at the national level. These are:

  • Develop a user guide on the land-based indicators for practitioners and decision makers to ensure that the datasets and methodologies that underpin terrestrial observations and land-based indicators are “both accessible and applicable;”
  • Promote continued investments in joint international observatories (such as the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) that enable the integration of LDN monitoring and assessment needs into existing efforts to systematically collect environmental observations;
  • Explore ways to incentivize integrated national observatories to assess the status of land degradation and the impact of climate change, SLM and land-based adaptation so as to reduce duplications among national action programmes of the Rio Conventions and actively contribute to common global reporting initiatives; and
  • Tackle remaining uncertainties around feedback loops among land degradation, climate change and loss of biodiversity by evaluating “incentives and disincentives for the adoption of SLM practices at different scales and include the local knowledge of land users in the drylands.”

At the request of the UNCCD Secretariat, the GEF/STAP commissioned a complementary study to identify an indicator of the resilience of agro-ecosystems that could be applied at the national level by UNCCD Parties “and could also be relevant to the CBD and UNFCCC.” Drawing on case studies from Niger and Thailand, the STAP report analyzed the potential application of the Resilience, Adaptation Pathways and Transformation Assessment (RAPTA) Framework, and concluded that this approach has the capacity to support the SDGs and “capture synergies across the Rio Conventions in areas of common interest in the management of human/ecological systems.”

Reviewers of the RAPTA framework, who included experts from the GEF, Rio Convention secretariats and various development and research institutions, concluded that RAPTA not only “has a sound basis in resilience science … but also fills a recognized gap for the assessment of resilience at national scale.” While commending RAPTA as a practical approach, it was also acknowledged that “co-development and testing with stakeholders in an applied setting is required before the RAPTA Framework is ready for implementation by Parties to the Rio Conventions.”

In a final decision, UNCCD COP 12 called on Parties and relevant organizations and institutions to support the refinement and testing of the RAPTA Framework in relevant projects, with a view to promoting it as an example of a common approach to planning, monitoring and reporting on land-based adaptation and agro-ecosystem resilience and operationalizing the LDN target.

Ensuring National Ownership

A future of hotter temperatures, increased rainfall variability and increasingly frequent and severe drought events makes it clearer than ever before that Namibia needs to increase the resilience of its communities and ecosystems. This is why Namibia has embraced the concept of land degradation neutrality … The achievement of land degradation neutrality will require us to bring together the conservation and sustainable utilization of biodiversity with climate change adaptation so that we are resilient to the increasing climate variability we are likely to face – Video: Pursuing Synergies on the Implementation of the Rio Conventions in Namibia.

Following extensive discussions, UNCCD COP 12 adopted a decision calling on countries to embark on voluntary national processes to develop LDN targets and further align their existing NAPs with the SDGs. Funding announcements at UNCCD COP 12 sought to ensure that implementation of the decision would get off to a quick start: initial commitments of a combined US$8 million were announced during COP 12 by the Turkish Government and the GEF. In December, the LDN Fund was launched by the Global Mechanism (GM) of the UNCCD, in collaboration with a consortium of private investors and other partners, to provide additional funding for achieving the target. The Fund’s stated objective is to leverage public and private investments “to contribute to the rehabilitation of 12 million hectares of degraded land per year and the sustainable and productive use of this land.” The partners envisage that this will create the new “investment territory” of land rehabilitation and avoided degradation.

With the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD facilitating an expanded LDN Target Setting Programme in 2016, the expectation is that more countries will anchor their land-related targets within a broader national framework for implementing the SDGs. However, with most countries yet to finalize these targets, it is likely that the agenda of the special “methodological” session of the UNCCD’s Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC 15), scheduled to take place in October 2016, will be a packed one as it will present the first real opportunity to assess national efforts to develop frameworks that can enhance synergistic implementation. Perhaps even more importantly, from a national implementation perspective, this effort could also provide insights on how to develop indicators that capture linkages among different SDGs. In a series of visual illustrations of the potential to integrate the three UNCCD land-based progress indicators into the monitoring approaches of the other Rio Conventions, the SPI report pointed out that “all processes and potential links in the schematic are either already operational or are feasible.” The challenge for CRIC 15 will be to convince those responsible for day-to-day implementation of the three Conventions that these links are also workable in practice, not just on paper.


The author wishes to thank Lauren Anderson, Stefan Jungcurt, Elena Kosolapova, Nathalie Risse, Lynn Wagner and Virginia Wiseman for their valuable input to this Policy Update.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is pleased to bring you a series of policy updates on national reporting and implementation processes within the multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) processes that we have been tracking for over two decades. Decisions taken in 2015 by intergovernmental policy makers have sought to change the approach to implementing sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change are universal agendas, with implied implementation obligations for all countries. Our Earth Negotiations Bulletin writers and thematic experts for our Policy & Practice knowledgebases have monitored discussions on the successes and shortcomings of national planning and reporting processes within the MEAs and other processes we follow. Our hope is that this series will help all concerned with implementing the new sustainable development directions of 2015 to build on lessons of the past.


CBD (2015). Information Note on Outcome of the 13th meeting of the Joint Liaison Group of the Rio Conventions. Montreal, Canada: Convention on Biological Diversity.

German Federal Environment Agency (2015). Resource-Efficient Land Use – Towards a Global Sustainable Land Use Standard (GLOBALANDS). Dessau-Roßlau, Umweltbundesamt.

Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (2015). Biodiversity, Climate Change and Land: Sustaining Livelihoods Through the Three Rio Conventions. Video documentary, UNCCD You Tube Channel.

Reed, Mark and Lindsay Stringer (2015). Climate Change and Desertification: Anticipating, Assessing and Adapting to Future Change in Drylands. Impulse Report for the 3rd UNCCD Scientific Conference.

UNCCD (2015). Refinement of the UNCCD monitoring and evaluation framework in view of the post-2015 development agenda: strategic objectives 1, 2 and 3. Bonn, Germany: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

UNCCD (2015). Monitoring the contribution of sustainable land use and management to climate change adaptation/mitigation and to the safeguarding of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Bonn, Germany: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

UNCCD (2015). Pivotal Soil Carbon. Science-Policy Brief 01. Bonn, Germany: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

UNCCD (2016). Expert meeting on a land degradation indicator (SDG target 15.3). Summary of Main Outcomes. Washington D.C., 25-26 February 2016.

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