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Don’t forget the land!

Matteo De Donà | 20 August 2020

Welcome banner for the UNCCD COP14 conference in New Delhi, India
The UNCCD COP14 conference in New Delhi, India, September 2019. Photo by the author.

Today, it’s a long shot to find someone who has never heard the expression 'climate change'. We all know it: we are living in times in which the impact of human activities on the Earth is huge. Actually, it has never been so severe. This has led many people, both inside and outside of academia, to talk about a new geological era, the Anthropocene. However, while this concept is relatively recent, the idea that there is a need to do something about the environment is less so.

During the postwar period, the growing environmental movement was aware that most environmental issues do not respect borders. Such awareness demanded that global problems be tackled through global coordination. This was probably clear to the organizers of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. That was an important moment because, for the first time, UN member states sat at a table to properly discuss common environmental challenges. Yet, the outcome of the summit was not particularly ambitious: besides a vague final declaration on environment and development principles and the establishment of a (still nowadays) weak United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), not much came out of it.

It was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held twenty years later in Rio de Janeiro, that yielded more concrete results. In fact, this summit paved the way for the establishment of three key multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), i.e. legally binding treaties for UN member states. At that time, in 1992, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was already established and scientific understanding of climate change issues was growing significantly. Therefore, at the Rio Summit, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature. The same happened with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and, a couple of years later, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) followed suit.

The UNCCD, which aims to combat and mitigate the effects of desertification, land degradation and drought in affected countries and “particularly in Africa”, issued from a difficult negotiation between Global North and Global South. The least funded (and, not surprisingly, the least well-known) of the three ‘Rio Conventions’, it is often labeled 'the Convention of the poor'. Reversing land degradation has never been a pressing issue for the global North, usually more interested in conservation-oriented matters such as reducing deforestation. “The UNCCD is about development, not the environment” has always been one of the most common arguments against it.

Today, almost 30 years since the Rio Summit, things have slightly changed and the land issue is a bit higher on the global political agenda. Nevertheless, it took a lot of effort, at all levels, to make sure that the Sustainable Development Goals included a target (15.3) on combating desertification and restoring degraded land and soil. At the global sphere, along with a ‘scientifically revamped’ UNCCD, other UN fora such as the Global Soil Partnership of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as well as recurring international awareness- raising initiatives like Global Soil Week have certainly contributed to this end.

Yet, land and soil issues still have a hard time. The mainstreaming of land and soil has to occur by highlighting co-benefits (e.g. food security) or making links to associated environmental issues (e.g. climate change): an example of this is the ambitious initiative 4p1000, launched by the French government at UNFCCC COP 21. Indeed, abundant scientific research has shown that practices such as sustainable land management through soil organic carbon sequestration provide benefits both in terms of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Furthermore, the link between climate change and land has recently been highlighted in a special IPCC report. This one of the reasons why the UNCCD has been ‘chasing’ the UNFCCC for many years. Yet, this ‘bandwagoning’ of the climate change regime gives an idea of the hierarchies: land and soil are still light-years away from climate.

The truth is that, unfortunately, soil and land are still not a priority among donor countries. For instance, even a country like Sweden, champion of the fight against climate change, does not seem particularly active internationally as far as this domain is concerned. When I attended the UNCCD COP 14, held in New Delhi in September 2019, I remember talking to a participant, asking about the Swedish delegation. She replied: “Oh the Swedes, yeah they were here the other day but then they left I think… they don’t seem to care so much about the UNCCD!”

Global environmental issues are not only complex but also interdependent. Addressing daunting problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss and land degradation with a silo-mentality means fighting a losing battle. No one wants to run the risk that one of these battles might overshadow the others. In this sense, the legacy of the Rio Summit is important, especially when thinking about the challenges faced by several least developed countries. Reviving the spirit of Rio, the message is clear: don’t forget the land!


Matteo De Donà is a doctoral candidate in Environmental Social Science at the School of Global Studies. His research fields of interest include: Global Environmental Governance; Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs); Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS); and Science-policy interactions. In his PhD project, Matteo is investigating the role of scientific advice in global environmental governance as far as soil and land issues are concerned.


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