United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP14): Key Highlights & Takeaways

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This year, India had hosted the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Conference of Parties (UNCCD COP14), in New Delhi. About 8,000 participants and delegates from across 200 countries took part in this Convention. Almost 30 decisions were agreed upon after intense deliberations. The use of the term “desertification” in the Convention to Combat Desertification gives the impression that this Convention only focuses on deserts. However, this is not true. This Convention is about the sustainable management and restoration of land – which has important positive implications for water, energy, biodiversity, and livelihoods. This year’s COP, India took over the presidency and has the opportunity to bring to the limelight this lesser-known Rio Convention. By hosting UNCCD COP14, India has become the 4th country in the world along with Argentina, Kenya, and Germany to have convened all three COPs under the Rio Convention of 1992. These include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the UNCCD.

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This topic of “United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP14): Key Highlights & Takeaways” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is UNCCD?

  • United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was established in 1994.
  • It is the sole legally binding international agreement linking development and environment to sustainable land management.
  • The UNCCD gives special focus on semi-arid, arid and dry sub-humid regions known as the dry-lands. This is the area where some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples are found.
  • It has 197 member countries. They work together to:
  • Improve the living conditions of the people living in the dry-lands,
  • Maintain and restore land and soil productivity
  • To mitigate the effects of drought.
  • The Convention is especially committed to a bottom-up approach, encouraging the participation of the local people in combating desertification and land degradation.

What is the Conference of Parties (CoP)?

  • It is the supreme decision-making body of UNCCD.
  • All states that are Parties to the Convention are represented at the COP, at which they review the implementation of the Convention and any other legal instruments that COP adopts and take decisions necessary to promote the effective implementation of the Convention, including institutional and administrative arrangements.
  • The key task for the COP is to review the national communications and emission inventories submitted by the Parties.
  • Based on this information, the COP assesses the effects of the measures taken by the parties and progress made in achieving the ultimate objective of the Convention.
  • The COP meets biennially since 2001
  • The first COP was held in Berlin, Germany in March of 1995.
  • The COP13 had been held at the Ordos, China in September 2017.
  • India had taken over the COP presidency from China and will hold this position from 2019 to 2021.

COP14 Logo:

  • COP14 logo has been given by India.
  • The sapling rising from the bottom shows the progress while the leaves on the top represent the life itself, while the Sun’s rays signify hope.
  • Land and water in the logo show the importance of being the source of life.
  • The hands in the logo signify the importance of human involvement for the betterment of life.

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What are the key takeaways of the 14th Conference of Parties?

  • Delhi Declaration: The 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) of the UNCCD ended with 196 countries and the EU adopting the “New Delhi Declaration”. The 12-point Delhi Declaration agreed to by the parties after the Conference raises ambitious targets with a people’s first approach to land restoration. Through this declaration, the parties expressed commitments for a range of issues, including gender, health, ecosystem restoration, taking action on climate change, Private sector engagement, Peace Forest Initiative and recovery of 5 million hectares of degraded land in India.
  • The parties have agreed to make the Sustainable Development Goal Target of achieving land degradation neutrality by 2030.
  • Peace Forest Initiative: It is an initiative of South Korea that aims to use ecological restoration as a peace-building process. Its objective is to address the issue of land degradation in conflict-torn border areas. It can significantly alleviate tensions and build trust between communities living there and ease the diplomatic tensions between the countries.
  • Land Degradation Neutrality:
  • One of the most important discussions was on Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN).
  • LDN can be defined as a situation where the quality of land to support the basic ecosystem remains stable or increases over time.
  • Until now, 122 out of the 197 parties have committed themselves to the LDN targets by 2030.
  • During this session, India announced its intentions to restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.
  • This includes 21 million hectares that India has committed to restoring under the Bonn Challenge.
  • As per the report by IUCN, India had restored 9.8 million hectares of land from 2011 to 2017.
  • This means that at a rate of approximately 10 million hectares every 5 years, the target of 26 million is achievable.
  • However, this can only be possible if India takes the necessary steps in that direction.
  • Drought Toolbox:
  • The convention tabled discussions on drought management which is extremely relevant for most of the member nations if used effectively.
  • A “drought toolbox” discussed at the convention, is an important knowledge product of the convention which gives a variety of information on monitoring and early initiative for drought, vulnerability and risk assessment as well as risk mitigation measures.
  • It is launched as a one-stop-shop for all actions related to drought.
  • It is a knowledge bank containing tools that can strengthen the ability of the nations to anticipate and prepare for drought effectively and reduce its negative impacts on the economy.
  • The Parties must ensure the familiarisation of the valuable information in this toolbox among the practitioners of drought management in the vulnerable areas.
  • The COP also urged the parties to take steps to integrate the land-use change and land degradation in their institutions responsible for drought management. While ensuring drought smart land management.
  • International Coalition for action on Sand and Dust Storms (SDS): The coalition will develop an SDS source base map to improve monitoring and response to the sand and dust storms. SDS affects about 77% of UNCCD Parties or approximately 151 countries.
  • The Discussion on the “who” and how” of the implementation:
  • In the discussion at COP, one of the members pointed out that effective implementation goes beyond the designing of good projects and securing funding.
  • The implementation can be effective only if vital questions like the following are answered:
  1. Who should implement it?
  2. Who will be the beneficiaries?
  3. How will it be implemented?
  • For the “who” part, implementation can be effective only if the framework design and the implementation plan are inclusive.
  • It should include the participation of different types of stakeholders, government, corporates, civil society, and local communities – including farmers.
  • The decisions at COP this year came out with innovative ideas for inclusive approaches for the involvement of youth, women, indigenous people, and local communities.
  • On the designing projects, the stakeholders must ensure that there are facilitative structures to support the inclusion of these groups explicitly.
  • As for the “how” part, it should begin by identifying and targeting the achievable goals.
  • As per the Land Degradation Atlas prepared by the Indian Space Application Centre, during the period 2011 and 2013, almost 96.40 million hectares underwent land degradation equivalent to 29.32% of the total geographical area of the country.
  • Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir and Karnataka are the top five states with high land degradation rates.
  • Project designs focusing on these states can help in meeting targets faster.
  • Sustainable agriculture:
  • There was a common consensus on the need for sustainable agriculture.
  • Agricultural sector plays a vital role in the Indian economy with almost half the labour force directly dependent on it as the means of principal means of livelihood.
  • The farmers are the direct beneficiaries of this Convention.
  • Agroforestry is a proven approach to reduce land degradation since it promotes the managing of trees and crops with the same piece of land thereby boosting land productivity and farmer’s profitability.
  • India has already taken global leadership in this area by becoming the first country in the world to formulate a National Agroforestry policy in 2014.
  • However, India can also learn the best practices in this regard from other nations. For example, the Global Land Outlook released at COP13 noted that Tunisia is using wastewater in agroforestry projects for supporting wood production in degraded lands.
  • Sustainable Value Chain:
  • In the discussions in the interactive dialogue of the high-level segment of the COP14, there was also the segment on boosting sustainable value chains for land-based business where the Deputy Minister of environment, science, and Innovation of Ghana had stressed the need for action towards creating innovative, inclusive and “entirely” new value chains.
  • India can use its presidency to facilitate technology and financing options for addressing disruptive value chain models.
  • Integrated action:
  • Another important theme at the COP was exploring options to include LDN in the national action plans and the discussion on the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals.
  • There were discussions on the need to assess in an integrated manner the targets for LDN and the sustainable Development Goals for water (SDG6) energy (SDG7) and climate action (SDG13) so that they are achieved simultaneously.
  • This discussion is important for India because strategies for restoring land have co-benefits for climate action.
  • For example, the use of bioenergy crops or solar panels can help improve degraded lands.
  • It was reiterated again and again by the participants of the COP14 in various formal and informal sessions that understanding these collaborations and trade-offs is essential to minimize the implementation costs.
  • Though this seems a practical thing to do, it is easier said than done.
  • Anyone familiar with the administrative structure of India and other developing nations would know that such integration is difficult if not impossible.
  • For example, in India, there are different ministries for different sectors with the well-defined demarcation of the roles of the officials and there is limited scope for integration.
  • Rigid divides between the roles of the ministries and bureaucrats is not a healthy structure for integrated work in which the role of all players in a coordinated fashion is mandatory.
  • It is high time India considers a sustainable cooperative approach to deal with problems like climate change and land degradation.
  • If not, we may talk of the importance of integration in our eloquent speeches at conferences like COP though, in reality, it is unlikely to happen.

Takeaway messages of the COP14:

  • Land restoration is the cheapest solution to climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Land restoration gives business sense if regulations and incentives are in place.
  • Drought preparedness and response are critical in the face of climate change.
  • A people-first approach to ensure gender equality, engagement of youth and securing of land rights.

What are the limitations of the Delhi Declaration?

  • The New Delhi Declaration, signed at COP14 of the UNCCD has diluted the role of the international funding bodies like Green Climate Fund (GCF), Global Environment Faculty (GEF) and Adaptation Fund in combating desertification. These institutions were mentioned in the Draft.
  • The Declaration has also removed the mention of “legal recognition” of tenurial rights.
  • The issue of these rights was one of the most contentious ones being discussed in the Convention.
  • The Declaration also diluted the importance of land tenure and the user rights of the indigenous communities, youth, and women.
  • India, however, had committed to giving land titles to all eligible forest dwellers.
  • The Declaration also does not mention any specific measures that can be used for adaptation.
  • In fact, it does not use the word “adaptation” even once. The draft of this declaration, however, talked about the adaptation as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and their relation to the adaptation. This has been removed in the final declaration.
  • This Convention is not about desertification. It is about fighting desertification.
  • If we take measures against desertification, land degradation, and water scarcity, we will end up improving the livelihood and mitigating climate change.
  • Today, desertification is a global issue and requires international cooperation for it to be solved.
  • Management of the natural resources, especially land and water, is what the Convention is concerned about.
  • The mismanagement of these vital resources is exacerbated by climate change events, which is making millions more vulnerable and more marginalised.
  • Climate change is estimated to become deadly as the temperature continues to spiral and it is doubtful whether a diluted Declaration can mitigate this impending catastrophe.


Mere words alone can’t solve the issues of climate change, land degradation, and water scarcity. Cooperation from all nations across the world is necessary to solve the current crisis. These are not future problems but a present predicament that needs to be addressed proactively through inclusive participation and not be hindered by politics or bureaucracy. India can proactively work alongside other member parties to use its leadership position effectively and make its COP Presidency memorable.

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