Lake Bam, a crucial water source for tens of thousands of people in Burkina Faso that is threatened by climate change. Olivier Girard, CIFOR

Notes from the floor of UNCCD COP15

Here's what's happening at the year's biggest summit on land challenges

Happening now in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast, is the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Here’s what that means: global leaders are meeting to figure out how to stop terrestrial lands from losing their health and fertility, particularly due to desertification and drought, at the 15th edition of a UN-led conference.

Unlike the more widely known climate change COPs, such as the one held in Glasgow last year, there are no G7 presidents flying in on private jets or celebrity stars taking the stage. The setup is similar – a mix of international policymaking, scientific presentations and civil society action – but on a smaller scale and focused specifically on land issues.

Set in the Sofitel Abidjan Hôtel Ivoire, the COP15 is filled with some 2,000 participants, mostly from the African continent, who brighten the meeting rooms with colorful, traditional garments. Among these are heads of state (nine from Africa), ministers and key delegates who have met during the first two days to share what’s happening in their countries and sectors and advocate for the funding, policy and support needed most to fight land degradation on their home turf. This start of the COP is when many of major ‘moments’ of the two weeks have been made, so before things progress any further, here are some notes from the floor:

  • A hallmark report released by UNCCD in advance of the COP – the Global Land Outlook 2 (GLO2) – is serving as the scientific foundation for discussions. Among other staggering facts, the report found that 40 percent of all ice-free land is degraded, which has direct consequences on half of humanity and poses risks for half of global GDP.
  • “Future-proofing” is a term heading up the conference lexicon, referring to the need to proactively protect communities and landscapes from the future effects of climate change.
  • The need for gender equity is front and center. Eighty percent of employed women in most least-developed countries rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, but few own their land – for example, only 5 percent do in the Middle East and North Africa. The event opened with its second-ever Gender Caucus examining policy, finance and activism in this sector, and the launch of a new report on the gendered effects of desertification and drought.
  • The microphone has been given to youth much more than in COPs past. Sixty percent of Africa’s population is under the age of 25, and this demographic is increasingly viewed as a generational leader. Two of the main concerns voiced by the continent’s youth are the unsustainability of food and agriculture and access to water, as droughts are becoming increasingly severe and desertification is spreading.
  • The Great Green Wall – a UNCCD-led effort to restore a green belt across the Sahelian region to prevent the southward spread of the Sahara Desert – remains achievable but needs significantly more support to be realized. Leaders are calling for more funds, national coordination and task forces to ramp up the initiative.
  • Indeed, a little bit of money goes a long way. According to the UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw, each monetary unit invested in land restoration could return up to 30 times its value, and land restoration globally could generate up to USD 140 trillion. According to the GLO2, USD 1.6 trillion is needed for land restoration over the next eight years.
  • President Ouattara announced the Abidjan Legacy Program as a new five-year strategy to restore the country’s forests and food supply through modern methods such as by using the latest tree-planting technology and climate-smart plant varieties. The country aims to raise USD 1.5 billion to support the effort, and the African Development Bank, the E.U., the Green Growth Initiative and the World Bank have already pledged funds.
  • The first two days ended with the “Abidjan Call” – a collective assertion from leaders stressing the need to make drought an issue of highest global priority and to continue working toward a net-neutral level of annual land degradation by 2030.
  • Key figures presiding over the event have included UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw, Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara and first lady Dominique Ouattara, former Finnish president Tarja Kaarina Halonen, president of the UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid, UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed, young Kenyan conservationist Patricia Kombo, Indigenous rights activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, French president Emmanuel Macron, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen via video, and spiritual leader and environmentalist Sadhguru.



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