It’s all down to the science: Ensuring a sound scientific approach to achieving SDG 15


By Noel Oettle

That global ecosystems and soils are going down the tubes at an unprecedented rate is well-established fact. As efforts and resource allocations intended to reverse the trend become greater, it is vital that the global community develops a sound idea of what it is that we should be measuring and what these measurements imply.

Human institutions and scientific thinking inhabit the world of silos, with too little thinking across the boundaries. The array of UN environmental agreements tends to perpetuate this, despite all of the emphasis placed on ‘synergies between the conventions’. A formerly eroded landscape covered in trees might seem, to some, to represent worthy restoration, even if the trees are all of one species, originate elsewhere and have a negative impact on the hydrology. Without a common approach to measurement of sustainable land management and restoration we will not progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 15: ‘Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss’.

This concern was addressed by the UNCCD at COP 11 when the Science Policy Interface (SPI) was established. The goal of the SPI is to facilitate a two-way dialogue between scientists and policy makers in order to ensure the delivery of policy-relevant information, knowledge and advice on desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD), including the measurement of degradation and restoration.

The SPI’s mandate and scope of activities are designed to strengthen the work of the scientific community working on drought, land degradation and desertification (DLDD), including the UNCCD’s Committee on Science and Technology (CST). Twenty scientists from around the world serve on the SPI, along with a representative of civil society.

The tasks of the SPI include mainstreaming participatory processes, including problem identification, and selection, assessment and monitoring of potential interventions. The SPI is also charged with ensuring that the thematic assessment on land degradation and restoration (LDR) conducted by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is of relevance to the UNCCD. This work is undertaken in collaboration with the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS) of the Global Soil Partnership (GSP), and supports efforts towards the development of more systematic approach to measuring and monitoring of the trends and impacts of desertification/land degradation and drought (DLDD), as well as the impacts of sustainable land management (SLM) solutions.

At COP12 the SPI presented an approach entitled “Monitoring the contribution of sustainable land use and management to climate change adaptation/mitigation and to the safeguarding of biodiversity and ecosystem services’ to the CST. It explores the scientific basis for the contention that SLM can contribute to climate change mitigation & adaptation and the safeguarding of biodiversity & ecosystem services, including the synergy among current monitoring approaches and a common tool for assessing resilience. It argues that Sustainable Land Management (SLM) is pivotal to obtaining multiple global benefits simultaneously, and creates a ‘win-win-win’ situation for achieving the goals of all three Rio Conventions. However, it cautions that the incentives (and disincentives) for adopting SLM practices that maximize these global benefits need to be identified, and practical methods for increasing SLM adoption (and reducing barriers) need to be tested and then made widely available.

The scientific rationale is that SLM practices enhance biodiversity on agricultural land and minimize adverse impacts on natural ecosystems, thus contributing to climate change mitigation and the conservation of biodiversity on-farm and off-farm. Managing land degradation through SLM constitutes an intersection of interests between the Rio conventions and the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and promoting the sustainable management of agro-ecosystems will help tackle these major issues.

In practice, this is not so simple to implement. Synergies between the three Rio Conventions may seem obvious. For example: changes in land productivity, changes to the resilience to climate change, changes in land use that reduce emissions and changes in relevant biodiversity components. However, the synergistic (across-Conventions) scoping, mapping, prescribing, acting, monitoring & assessing, and enabling (generating support) steps are less obvious.

One approach to maximizing the synergies among the three Rio conventions is to ensure the integration of the monitoring and evaluation aspects that are relevant to the three conventions.

The SPI proposes that among the six UNCCD progress indicators, three are land-based and highly synergistic with the other conventions

SO2 To improve the condition of ecosystems: Trends in land cover and Trends in land productivity or functioning of the land

SO3 To generate global benefits through effective implementation of the UNCCD Trends in carbon stocks above and below ground

There is clearly much scope for synergy in the joint implementation of the three Rio conventions. Integration of monitoring and assessment frameworks with respect to land and the implementation of SLM strategies will be beneficial to the goals of the three conventions. The SPI proposed that making this integration operational should begin with the three UNCCD land-based progress indicators, and associated essential variables, guidelines and outcome indicators embraced by UNFCCC and CBD. The SPI argues that the full integration and accounting of these indicators is both essential and feasible. However, as currently formulated the three progress indicators alone do not capture the complexity of land dynamics or the benefits of SLM. The value of these indicators is thus dependent on the conceptual framework within which they are applied and interpreted. The SPI has therefore developed a conceptual framework that will be proposed to UNFCCC and CBD as a way to devise and adopt a common land-based data collection, monitoring and assessment platform using a multi-tier approach with a core set of global indicators complemented by nationally developed indicator systems. The intention is that this multi-tier platform would address the information needs of decision-makers at various operational scales.

If you would like more information on the proposed framework, please contact Noel Oettle at

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