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Spotlight on two special anniversaries in Bonn

UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) both turn 25 this year. An interview with Ibrahim Thiaw, UNCCD Executive Secretary, on past achievements, future challenges and Bonn’s assets as a host city.

Interview with the UNCCD Executive Secretary

UN Campus Bonn

1. What would you consider the three biggest achievements of the past 25 years?

First - gaining people’s perception.
When the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was established in 1994, it was mostly regarded as the convention for the poor. Over the 25 years, the world has gradually come to understand that land degradation and desertification are not only the issue of Africa nor the developing countries. This change of perception is owed much to the progress in scientific findings that revealed the relationship between land degradation and climate change, loss of biodiversity, and influence on human insecurity. Also, the change of perception is the result of 25 years of civil society movement to support the affected community as well as lobby at various decision-making forums over the integration of land management into sustainable development agenda. 

Second - gaining international commitment.
For long time the land was not given the attention it deserved to mobilize appropriate action from the international community. This has changed when achieving land degradation neutrality became one of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 (SDG15.3). Land was not part of the Millennium Development Goals which is the SDG predecessor. The international agreement on achieving land degradation neutrality gave an impetus to highlight land as a key player in achieving other sustainable development goals while directly addressing poverty alleviation, food crisis, hunger, health issues, energy challenges, environmental migration, and peace and security. Land is now clearly seen as an important part in accelerating the achievement of many SDGs. UNCCD played a major role in the process of negotiations toward this global consensus, and will continue our commitment in supporting countries achieve their own ambitions to land degradation neutrality. 

Third - gaining countries’ commitment.
Since the universal adoption of SDG15.3 on achieving land degradation neutrality (LDN), over 120 countries have set, or are setting, their own national targets with concrete actions to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation, and mitigate the effects of drought. The Global Mechanism and the secretariat of the UNCCD are supporting these countries in this important endeavour in collaboration with multiple international partners. I believe this is a significant achievement as target setting strategically places the measures to conserve, sustainably manage and restore land in the context of land use planning. Over 120 countries working for massive-scale land restoration certainly supports significant achievements on other sustainable development goals.

2. And the three challenges you would like to tackle within the near future?

There are a number of challenges ahead in achieving land degradation neutrality for sure. But we must remind ourselves that we can turn these challenges into opportunities through improved land use and management. Therefore, let me turn around the questions and speak about the three opportunities that we want to grab. These issues will be addressed at the forthcoming fourteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD (COP14) to be held in New Delhi, India, from 2-13 September. 

First opportunity – land restoration to cope with climate change.
Our lands and land use provide an untapped opportunity to store carbon and reduce carbon emissions. Soils are the second largest store of carbon after the oceans. Estimates suggest that around one third of the greenhouse gas mitigation required between now and 2030 can be provided by land-based solutions. We have known for over 25 years that poor land use and management are major drivers of climate change but have never mustered the political will to act. However, there have been a number of scientific assessments recently that made clear the possible consequences of inaction and we have no excuse for further delay our action. The knowledge and technologies to manage our lands sustainably already exist. All we need is the will to use them to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, protect vital ecosystems and meet the challenge of feeding a growing global population. We must harness the enormous positive potential of our lands and make them part of the climate solution. 

Second opportunity – fostering a global movement for ecosystem restoration. Earlier this year, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2021 to 2030 as the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The Decade will encourage and mobilize policymakers, private finance, land managers, civil society and NGOs to scale up their efforts to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation worldwide. Implementation of the Decade will give us an additional impetus for collective action and generate synergies through the integrated management of land, water and living resources. It will also step up efforts to tackle desertification, land degradation, erosion and drought, biodiversity loss and water scarcity, which are seen as major environmental, economic and social challenges for global sustainable development. 

Third opportunity - a value-based approach to land stewardship for future consumption and production patterns.
The ever-increasing world-wide consumption and production patters mean that what we eat in one country can impact land in another. But there is some global shift in favour of environmental stewardship, which refers to the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation, restoration and sustainable practices. Leaders are emerging among a cross-section of UNCCD stakeholders who are placing a value-based, ethical and moral approach to land stewardship at the centre of their decision-making. The shift is manifesting itself in terms of individual and collective advocacy and action and changing consumption and production patterns. In this sense, we are experiencing a values revolution where people want to make the world a better place through their lifestyle, their careers and the products they buy.

3. What are Bonn’s special assets for your work?

It was precisely 20 years ago when the permanent secretariat of the UNCCD was established in Bonn. Germany is not only a great host to the Secretariat, but  is also a strong supporter to the ambitions and objectives of the Convention. Having a G7 country, the largest economy of Europe behind you and genuinely supportive is absolutely critical in the multilateral setting. 

The unfailing support of the host city, Bonn, and its mayors have also been instrumental. The current Mayor of Bonn, Mr. Ashok Sridharan participated in the UNCCD COP13 in Ordos, China, speaking on the role of local governments in addressing the challenges of land degradation. 

I was also honored to receive Mr. Sridharan, Her Excellency Ms. Jutta Schmitz, German Ambassador to the UN, and Deputy Director-General and Commissioner Mr. Stefan Schmitz, from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, among other dignitaries to the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the UNCCD, where we planted a tree on the ground of the UN Campus. 

In return, we hope our presence and that of our colleagues from other UN bodies are contributing to making the beautiful city of Bonn one of the centers of the world. We will certainly continue to work hand in hand with national, provincial and city authorities to further enhance the good reputation of Bonn as a city to visit and a place to live.

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  • Giacomo Zucca / Bundesstadt Bonn
  • Giacomo Zucca/Bundesstadt Bonn
  • Sascha Engst/Bundesstadt Bonn
  • Giacomo Zucca/Bundesstadt Bonn
  • Giacomo Zucca / Bundesstadt Bonn
  • Bishnu Sarangi/Pixabay.com

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