Combating Desertification through Multilateral Action
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Delegates who convened for the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP 12) considered whether the Convention would take on a goal akin to the Aichi Targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the objective of limiting temperature increases to 2˚C from pre-industrial levels for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

From 12-23 October 2015, delegates who had convened for the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP 12) considered whether the Convention would take on a goal akin to the Aichi Targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the objective of limiting temperature increases to 2˚C from pre-industrial levels for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Fortunately, the UNCCD COP 12 convened at an auspicious time in 2015, capitalizing on the global momentum and energy following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September and leading up to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, which is expected to adopt a new agreement on climate change in December. Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) include a specific target on Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) (SDG 15.3) in its Goal 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,” as well as a Goal on sustainable agriculture and food security (SDG 2), both of which are extremely relevant to the UNCCD mandate.

Ensconced between these two meetings, calls for greater recognition of the ties of desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) to climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity loss, and agriculture were realized. COP 12 adopted the LDN by 2030 target and agreed on indicators (trends in land cover, land productivity and carbon stocks above and below ground) to be used to measure progress.[1] These outcomes, relevant for reporting across all three Rio Conventions (UNCCD, UNFCCC and CBD), are expected to more firmly link the UNCCD to the CBD and UNFCCC.[2]

The UNCCD is recognized for its unique mandate of combatting desertification and mitigating the effects of drought, which are national or regional-level phenomenon, in the context of a global agreement. It was negotiated at the request of the African countries, and its full title (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa) provides for special attention to Africa. Though the Convention’s scope remains focused on arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, COP 12 agreed that land degradation occurs outside drylands as well, and Parties “may use the UNCCD to guide their policies relating to desertification, land degradation and drought and voluntary targets when striving to achieve LDN at national and subnational levels.” This outcome opened the door for the Parties to embrace SDG target 15.3, which addresses land degradation globally, as the specific objective of a Convention focused to date on sustainable development in the drylands.

Given this important moment for the UNCCD, this policy update considers how improved understanding of the Convention and its provisions, particularly through an e-course published by InforMEA, a project of the multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) Information and Knowledge Management Initiative, can help the UNCCD maintain its momentum towards facilitating efforts to achieve land degradation neutrality. Efforts to promote understanding of the mechanisms of the Convention and the broad implications of DLDD can help foster UNCCD implementation.

The e-course first outlines the causes of desertification, the provisions of the UNCCD and shows that the localized effects of DLDD are linked to global problems and necessitate a global response. Among the causes of desertification, the e-course highlights climate change and international trade. Climate change, which knows no borders, has broad environmental implications including altered weather patterns and decreased river runoff, which can increase water scarcity and the conversion of drylands into deserts. Global trade patterns, the other example provided, can cause perverse incentives, such as the short-term, unsustainable exploitation of land in order to capitalize on high prices for goods destined for export. The understanding of both the global causes and local consequences of desertification provided by the e-course will allow for more effective UNCCD implementation.

The UNCCD puts partnerships, including with the CBD and UNFCCC, and international cooperation at the heart of its approach. The objective of the Convention, according to the e-course, is “to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought in countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa, through effective action at all levels, supported by international cooperation and partnership arrangements.” This approach becomes particularly relevant given the SDGs’ adoption and the possibility of a new climate agreement in Paris. SDG target 15.3 on LDN, which is now also the UNCCD’s target, could bring UNCCD stakeholders into even closer contact with the development community and other global efforts to address land-based issues. The UNCCD has estimated that achievement of the LDN target could result in the rehabilitation of 12 million hectares of degraded land globally each year, which could help close roughly 25% of the estimated emissions gap of 13 gigatonnes of equivalent CO2 (GtC02e). Effective action and synergy will require a greater understanding of the provisions of the Convention and the issue of desertification as provided by the course. This UNCCD primer will also support the identification of new and fruitful areas of cooperation.

The outcomes of COP 12, in addition to the Convention’s existing bottom-up approach, reinforce its need for broad stakeholder participation in support of implementation and achievement of LDN. As the e-course explains, Parties are to involve citizens, non-governmental organizations and other community-based organizations in designing action plans to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought. The Convention includes provisions to facilitate this public participation, which is a clear entry point for this accessible e-course to provide support.

As the UNCCD bolsters its implementation in alignment with a new global development agenda and climate change regime, it must embolden all stakeholders and Parties with sound information on its history and its provisions. A global response to DLDD rooted in local action will be critical for the achievement of LDN as well as many other global development goals – and this e-course supports the action and implementation that will be needed by all.

Jennifer Allan and Lynn Wagner contributed to this policy update.


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