7 August 2019: Preparations are underway for the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 14) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which takes place from 2-13 September 2019 in New Delhi, India. Several recently released global assessments, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL), as well as a high-level dialogue exploring “missing links” in the Convention’s implementation are expected to provide new impetus to efforts to achieve the UNCCD’s targets.

COP 14 will provide the first opportunity for Parties to assess progress under the new UNCCD Strategic Framework, which also seeks to align the Convention’s goals with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UNCCD estimates that around 12 million hectares of productive land – that could produce 20 million tons of grain annually – are lost to desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) each year. The Convention seeks to reverse this trend by promoting, among other actions, efforts to achieve land degradation neutrality (LDN), which has also been adopted as target 15.3 under the SDGs, and is viewed as “an accelerator and integrator” in linking multiple SDGs and helping to attract financing from diverse sources to implement the Convention.

Against this backdrop, the SRCCL is expected to provide a welcome boost to the discussions. The SRCCL addresses greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes in land-based ecosystems, as well as links between land use and sustainable land management (SLM) in relation to climate change adaptation and mitigation, desertification, land degradation and food security.

Based on “middle of the road” projections, the IPCC report concludes that the dryland population vulnerable to water stress, drought intensity and habitat degradation could reach 178 million people by 2050 at 1.5°C warming, increasing to 220 million people at 2°C warming and 277 million people at 3°C warming. To avert such a scenario, the report calls for “prompt action” on climate mitigation and adaptation, aligned with SLM and sustainable development, and estimates that the costs of upfront investments in SLM practices and technologies could range from as little as USD 20 to around USD 500 per hectare.

Welcoming the Special Report, UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw observed that “we have known for over 25 years that poor land use and management are major drivers of climate change but have never mustered the political will to act.” He added that the evidence contained in the report “makes the consequences of inaction crystal clear,” and “we have no excuse for further delay.”

Emerging Themes

An estimated 30 decisions will be tabled for adoption at the Conference. Among key themes to be addressed are: people-centered land management policies; land, security and stability; transformative actions to accelerate land restoration and resilience; the role of science in enhancing actions on the ground; and enhanced commitments at global level to accelerate achievement of the land-related SDGs. Following the adoption of a standalone objective on drought under the new UNCCD Strategic Framework, COP 14 delegates will consider the development of a global indicator to help Parties assess their progress in implementing drought preparedness, management and response programmes.

We have known for over 25 years that poor land use and management are major drivers of climate change but have never mustered the political will to act.

In response to requests by some Parties, COP 14 will also initiate consideration of land rights and security of tenure as a new thematic area under the Convention. The discussions may benefit from references in the SRCCL to links between DLDD and, inter alia, land degradation, consumption patterns, food security and human rights. In its conclusions, the IPCC Special Report notes that adoption of SLM and poverty eradication “can be enabled by improving access to markets, securing land tenure, factoring environmental costs into food, making payments for ecosystem services, and enhancing local and community collective action.”

Several other “catalytic” issues that will come under the spotlight during the COP 14 High-Level Segment (HLS) will include: land, climate and renewable energy; rural-urban linkages; fostering a global movement for ecosystem restoration; values-based approaches to land stewardship; links between land and human health; and sustainable value chains for land-based businesses.

Monitoring National Progress

Ultimately, addressing the underlying causes of DLDD will require robust actions at local level that are supported by coherent national policies. To date, around 122 of the 169 UNCCD signatories that are affected by DLDD have developed national targets to help align implementation and monitoring of their land-related SDG targets.

India is one of the countries that is yet to set voluntary targets, and its LDN target-setting process was the subject of discussions at a pre-COP 14 workshop organized by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The discussions noted that nearly 30% of India’s land is degraded, and highlighted TERI analysis showing that the COP 14 host experiences economic losses equivalent to 2.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually due to land degradation and that the costs of reclaiming degraded land could be “far less” than not taking action. Expressing the government’s commitment to address this challenge, Anuradha Singh, Director, Desertification Cell at the Indian Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change, reported that India’s LDN target-setting process is underway “and should conclude over the next few months.” India is also expected to announce a “legacy project” at the conclusion of COP 14 to promote implementation of the Convention.

Previous host countries have similarly seized the momentum generated by UNCCD COPs to scale up ambition. At COP 12 in 2015, Turkey unveiled the Ankara Initiative to support LDN target-setting processes at national level, and announced it would contribute USD 5 million to kickstart the process. China, host of COP 13 in 2017, showcased its ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ aimed at linking land restoration efforts across the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. As part of the Initiative, China hosts the annual Kubuqi International Desert Forum to promote knowledge sharing on innovative SLM practices among scientists, businesses, local communities and policymakers. The seventh Forum took place from 27-28 July 2019 in Ordos, China.

Discussions at COP 14 will draw on a number of other recent reports, including the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Thematic Assessment on Land Degradation and Restoration and the UNCCD’s Global Land Outlook. [UNCCD Executive Secretary’s Statement on SRCCL] [UNCCD News Release on SRCCL Launch] [UNCCD COP 14 Webage] [COP 14 Official Documents] [TERI News Release on COP 14 Preparatory Event] [UNCCD Executive Secretary’s Statement at 7th Kubuqi Desert Forum] [IISD RS COP 14 Coverage]