Talks have begun on giving a global treaty on land degradation more teeth.
Almost all the countries of the world have signed up to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and are now in discussions to create a protocol or legal instrument to make the treaty operational.
Melchiade Bukuru, chief of UNCCD’s liaison office at the UN headquarters in New York, told IRIN talks on a protocol have gained momentum.
The UNCCD secretariat had first tabled the idea for the protocol at the Rio+20 conference in 2012, and the proposed protocol was discussed at recent scientific meetings of the Convention. This is viewed as significant progress, as things often move slowly in multilateral forums.
The protocol is aimed at achieving Zero Net Land Degradation (ZNLD) and the UNCCD hopes it will help make the Convention operational in the manner that the Kyoto Protocol did for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in attempting to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
Ian Hannam, chair of the Sustainable Use of Soils and Desertification Specialist Group at the World Commission on Environmental Law, which falls under the International Union for Conservation of Nature, along with the group’s co-chair, Irene Heuser, and its previous chair, Ben Boer, have been campaigning for a protocol since 2012.
“A new legal instrument could take the form of a global policy and monitoring framework,” said Hannam and his co-campaigners in a statement. “It has also been proposed that such a protocol could incorporate the setting of ZNLD targets by individual countries, for example as a percentage of arable land in their jurisdiction, or regions within their jurisdiction.”
The UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol got countries to set time-bound targets to reduce harmful warming emissions. But it had the benefit of credible scientific data as its foundation - such as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the rate at which they were warming it. Data and studies on this information are still evolving, but the basis has been established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The UNCCD is pushing for the creation of similar body - an Intergovernmental Panel on Land and Soil (IPLS) - as a global authority providing credible and policy-relevant scientific information to help countries make informed decisions on dealing with land degradation and desertification (LDD).
At present credible scientific data on the extent of the problem is scarce, said a team of scientists in a report commissioned by the UNCCD in 2012.
Five global assessments in the last four decades have provided degradation estimates ranging from 15 percent to 63 percent of global land, and 4 percent to 74 percent of the Earth’s drylands.
The numbers have varied because different methods and factors were used in the calculations.
Nevertheless, in the two decades between 1981 and 2003, over 20 percent of the Earth's surface - on which 1.5 billion people live - has lost its ability to produce, based on the best interpretations of satellite imagery. But this data lacks country-specific details.
“It is the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] which built the foundation and the momentum of climate change in all political discourses and policies,” says Bukuru, underscoring the importance of a scientific panel.
“There is still some resistance [from some member countries], but the majority of countries support its establishment.”
In the interim, he said, countries can use the services of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) created in 2012. The IPBES will assess the state of the planet's biodiversity, its ecosystems, and the essential services they provide to society.
Bukuru said the UNCCD has in the meantime entered the “realm of measurability” in respect of its protocol.
In 2009 all the countries that are party to the UNCCD agreed to a set of indicators, such as the extent of land cover under a nation’s jurisdiction, and the number of people living above the poverty line in the areas affected by LDD. The countries have begun reporting back on the indicators since 2012, as is mandatory.
Explaining the relevance of the data, Bukuru said that the map of poverty usually coincides with that of degraded lands in most developing countries, except in oil-producing ones.
A 2009 review led by Zafar Adeel, director of the UN University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), also called for a scientific panel to be set up. "The UNCCD has not had this benefit [of credible science], and many of its founding assumptions are now challenged. It was believed that the Sahara was advancing remorselessly, whereas satellite measurements and careful field studies show that advance and retreat are cyclical.”
The UNCCD has also initiated a process to “put a price tag on action or inaction against land degradation, desertification and drought, and it turns out to prove that action is less expensive than inaction,” says Bukuru.
A report on one such effort informed a recent scientific meeting of the Convention that land degradation is costing the international community some US$490 billion per year, but some of the studies cited in the report used different ways of assessing degradation and there was not enough data available on some aspects, says Wagaki Mwangi, spokesperson for the UNCCD.
”We need the attention of policy-makers, including those who are indirectly in charge of the Convention, such as a minister of finance [who allocates national funds], to understand the relevance of sustainable land management… in the context of national development - food security, energy security, climate change adaptation, or poverty alleviation.”
The idea is to come up with a sound cost-benefit analysis like the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, presented in 2006 by Sir Nicholas Stern, head adviser to the UK government on the economics of climate change and development. The review put a monetary value on the impact of climate change and the global failure to take action now, which drew the attention of heads of state and finance ministers to the issue.
The UNCCD is supporting a global initiative - the Economics of Land Degradation, involving the European Commission, the Centre for Development Research (Bonn), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), UNU-INWEH and Germany - to establish a robust scientific basis for the development of sustainable land-use strategies, while a cost-benefit analysis would help create awareness.
Funding for projects to address land degradation and the impact of droughts has been improving, but is still too little. Mohamed Bakarr, of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the main funding mechanism of the UNCCD, said at the moment only US$320 million was available for the 144 countries eligible for funding for projects. The money is not distributed equally between the countries but according to criteria that take various factors into consideration.