Policy Update #1

UNCCD Opens Discussions on Economic Assessment of Desertification and Global Indicators

What would happen if a global convention could measure its parties' implementation actions and progress on the ground?

This question opened the brief analysis in our Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary from the second special session of the Committee on Science and Technology (CST S-2) and the ninth session of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC 9) of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which convened in Bonn, Germany, from 16-25 February 2011. And it is a useful question to ask again, two years later as UNCCD delegates open discussions for CST S-3 and CRIC 11, from 9-19 April 2013, in Bonn. The 2013 edition of these meetings will also incorporate the UNCCD 2nd Scientific Conference.

An additional organizing point for reviewing the topics for the April 2013 meetings can be found in the text focused on desertification in the outcome document from the June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20). In that decision, the international community reaffirmed its resolve, in accordance with the UNCCD, “to take coordinated action nationally, regionally and internationally, to monitor, globally, land degradation and restore degraded lands in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas,” and stressed “the importance of the further development and implementation of scientifically based, sound and socially inclusive methods and indicators for monitoring and assessing the extent of desertification, land degradation and drought.” In addition, through the Rio+20 outcome, the international community pledged to “strive to achieve a land-degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development.”

This policy update reviews the agenda for the UNCCD meetings in light of the Rio+20 outcome elements focused on desertification, and with a view to considering how the meetings in Bonn will contribute to advancing global efforts to assess and measure implementation and progress on the ground.

Coordinated Action to Globally Monitor Land Degradation

The Rio+20 outcome document section on desertification begins by recognizing the “economic and social significance of good land management, including soil, particularly its contribution to economic growth, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and food security, eradicating poverty, women's empowerment, addressing climate change and improving water availability.” International attention to this issue, from efforts preceding the negotiation of the UNCCD to the present, is premised on the value of good land management. The required actions to achieve this objective vary depending on each actor's level. The UNCCD Convention text itself has been called a “bottom up” approach to addressing desertification, due to its recognition of the role that actors at the local level will need to play to assure that good land management practices prevail. At the international level, the Convention identified a role for improving “the effectiveness and coordination of international cooperation to facilitate the implementation of national plans and priorities.”

International cooperation under this Convention has involved a number of activities, and many of the efforts that will be focused on during the April 2013 meetings stem from decisions taken at the ninth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 9) in 2009, to follow-up on the 10-Year Strategic Plan and Framework to enhance the implementation of the Convention (2008-2018), which was adopted by COP 8 in 2007. COP 9 defined the elements of the performance review and assessment of implementation system (PRAIS), and developed a number of performance and impact indicators through which parties to the Convention and others would assess their own efforts and the extent of desertification within their own country, to collectively build a dataset to measure the extent of the problem, as well as to identify best practices to address it.

In 2011, when we first asked “What would happen if a global convention could measure its parties' implementation actions and progress on the ground?” CST S-2 and CRIC 9 had just assessed the first round of reporting under PRAIS, and had developed recommendations to further refine the system. Our brief analysis of that meeting notes that, with the positive feedback for the initial use of PRAIS, came the recognition that translating the Convention's objectives into operational scientific advice for the UNCCD's 195 parties would not be a straightforward exercise. An impressive 89 affected country parties, 12 developed country parties, 11 accredited civil society organizations, the Global Environment Facility and the Global Mechanism had submitted reports by the deadline, and 13 more reports were submitted before the meeting, but not in time to be included in the preliminary analysis. Speakers noted issues with the methodology, complexity and funding requirements for completing their reports, and developed recommendations for the second round of reporting.

The meetings in 2013 will take up these issues again, to further the Convention's efforts to globally monitor land degradation through a review of subsequent reporting efforts, as well as expert group recommendations related to the indicators that reporting entities are to use. This time around, parties will have the first opportunity to review reporting on the basis of two impact indicators – changes in poverty and land cover in the drylands – although the information was submitted by only approximately 42 per cent of all affected country parties by the official deadline. The discussions during the two weeks in April will reveal what parties found as challenges in reporting on these indicators and why the reporting rate was low, as well as what the collected information reveals about the global extent of the situation on the ground.

Scientifically-Based Assessments

The Rio+20 outcome document stresses “the importance of the further development and implementation of scientifically based, sound and socially inclusive methods and indicators for monitoring and assessing the extent of desertification, land degradation and drought.” Efforts to measure the extent of desertification, let alone address its manifestations, require sound scientific advice. In an effort to increase the input from the scientific community into the questions that were on the COP's agenda, the UNCCD negotiators agreed, as part of the changes that were introduced with the adoption of the 10-Year Strategic Plan and Framework in 2007, that CST sessions would be “organized in a predominantly scientific and technical conference-style format by the CST Bureau in consultation with the lead institution/consortium…”

The UNCCD 1st Scientific Conference convened in parallel with COP 9, in 2009, and considered the theme “biophysical and socio-economic monitoring and assessment of desertification and land degradation, to support decision making in land and water management.” This conference took place in plenary sessions over a three-day period, with discussions organized according to themes that were developed in three white papers in preparation for the Conference. Recommendations from the Conference included elements to improve upon the experience procedurally. Among the recommendations was one that changed the timing of the Scientific Conference: the CST decided that future Scientific Conferences should meet intersessionally. This timing is meant to allow delegates, coalitions and governments to review the scientists' advice, with a view to better incorporating it into COP decisions.

The 2nd Scientific Conference provides the second attempt to revitalize the way science is incorporated into the CST. Participants will consider the theme “Economic assessment of desertification, sustainable land management and resilience of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas,” and thus will seek to advance efforts to quantify the value of taking action, and the costs of inaction, in addressing desertification. The Scientific Conference is organized by the Global Risk Forum (GRF) Davos, as the lead institution, under the guidance of the CST Bureau, and the discussions will be guided by two white papers: Economic and social impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought; and Costs and benefits of policies and practices addressing desertification, land degradation and drought.

The white papers present literature reviews and offer case studies on the topics. The first paper notes the challenges presented by the fact that “little research has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals on the economics of desertification, or of land degradation in general.” It explains the gap exists, in part, because formal economic modeling of land degradation only began in the 1980s and economic research in this field has not expanded since the early 1990s. The second paper, inter alia, highlights “the challenges that exist, the different opinions about the best way to address environmental economic valuations, and the many assumptions that need to be clearly identified for each exercise in order to communicate the results efficiently to decision-makers at all levels.” The 2nd Scientific Conference will discuss these topics in plenary sessions, and will bring the scientists and CST delegates together to explore the current state of knowledge and future steps. Parallel and poster sessions will also take place, to allow participants to further examine related topics and to build informal networks for further research.

CST S-3 will also consider preparations for the UNCCD 3rd Scientific Conference, which will consider the theme “Combating desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) for poverty reduction and sustainable development: the contribution of science, technology, traditional knowledge and practices.” The Conference is expected to take place in 2014 at a special session of the CST, and the CST Bureau has selected the consortium “Scientific and Traditional Knowledge for Sustainable Development (STK4SD)” to organize the UNCCD 3rd Scientific Conference.

Achieving a Land-degradation Neutral World

The Rio+20 outcome document indicates that the international community “will strive to achieve a land-degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development.” Realizing this objective will require sound scientific advice as well as monitoring mechanisms to identify whether it has been accomplished.

Some have proposed that this objective be incorporated into another element of the Rio+20 outcome document: the call to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The discussions on the SDGs began formally in March and considered, among other issues, how the SDGs would fit into the post-2015 development agenda, which is considering the follow-up efforts to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This topic will be discussed during the UNCCD 2nd Scientific Conference, when former Finish President Tarja Halonen addresses the theme “Looking at the challenges of Post 2015.” The effort to incorporate goals related to desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) into the SDGs recognizes the role that the MDGs have played in focusing international development policy and financing activities. Progress during the April 2013 CST and CRIC meetings to further develop and implement indicators and reporting on global DLDD issues could help benchmark efforts to achieve a land-degradation neutral world.

The Challenges for Parties in Bonn

Delegates in Bonn will have the opportunity to address agenda items that could result in a better understanding of the extent of desertification globally. The challenges to develop recommendations to operationalize their objectives to the satisfaction of all 195 parties are significant, even with the reminder from Rio+20 that DLDD “are challenges of a global dimension and continue to pose serious challenges to the sustainable development of all countries, in particular developing countries.” Their efforts are all the more urgent given that these meetings are taking place soon after one of the 195 parties announced that it is withdrawing from the Convention. What will other parties consider to be proof of progress in their collective efforts to address DLDD?

The CST and CRIC meetings in April 2013 represent the essence of what the 195 parties have joined together in the UNCCD to accomplish. These meetings will provide a platform to bring together representatives from governments, with advice from scientists, academics and other civil society groups, to consider how to benchmark and collaborate on key topics – including topics that, as the white papers prepared for the UNCCD 2nd Scientific Conference indicate, have not yet received much attention from scientists and academics. The convening power of the UNCCD already has generated preparatory work that has directed new attention to these topics. Our Earth Negotiations Bulletin team is reporting on the deliberations to bring readers information on how governments assess their most recent efforts to measure the extent and costs of desertification.