China Hosts COP 13 of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

By Noel Oettle

China hosted the thirteenth session of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention to Combat Desertification (COP 13) in the spanking new city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia between the 4th and 15th of September 2017. The Adaptation Network Secretariat was there and engaged in a number of the issues on the agenda.

The setting of the COP was nothing if not mind-blowing. The brand-new, superbly planned city of Ordos, built in a mere 15 years on the back of the wealth generated by the surrounding coal fields, showcased the new China with its wide boulevards, fantastic displays of flowers and trees, innovative architecture and profound, high-tech orderliness. A million people are now housed there, served by high-speed rail connections and a stylish airport. Ordos is clean and green, in living contradiction to the carbon-intensive extractive mining industry that surrounds it. After spending two weeks in Ordos, Noel Oettle reflected on impacts of rehabilitation on the surrounding landscape. The city and its relation to the surrounding countryside left many with questions related to China’s interpretation of land degradation and rehabilitation and how this relates to the aims of the UNCCD. The reflection follows this article.

South Africa was well represented at the COP by a powerful delegation of officials including Ministers and Deputy Ministers. “Team SA”, under the leadership of Deputy Director General Shoni Munzhedzi and Director General, Nosipho Ngcaba. It was South Africa’s honour to be elected as the Chair of the Committee of the Whole, the plenary of the COP. It was due in no small part to South Africa’s contribution and hard work that the COP concluded its work on schedule.

Much of the technical work of the COP is undertaken by two subsidiary bodies, the Committee on Science and Technology (CST) and the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC). The CST and CRIC convened in the first week of the COP. Six decisions were put forward by the CST for consideration by the COP, including cooperation with other intergovernmental scientific panels and bodies, improving the efficiency of the Science-Policy Interface, and promoting the analysis, dissemination and accessibility of best practices and the UNCCD Knowledge Hub. The CRIC also proposed six decisions: development and implementation of strategies through national action programmes to achieve the objectives of the Convention in light of target 15.3 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, mobilization of resources for the implementation of the Convention, collaboration with the Global Environment Facility; and improving the procedures for communication of information as well as the quality and formats of reports to be submitted to the COP. These decisions were adopted by the COP in the course of its second week.

The COP also debated and adopted decisions related to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its implications for the UNCCD; the future strategic framework of the Convention; effective implementation of the Convention at national, sub-regional and regional levels; and linking scientific knowledge with decision making. Through these decisions, the COP: endorsed the scientific conceptual framework for LDN and calls upon parties pursuing LDN to consider guidance from this framework; invites parties to identify case studies on LDN implementation to be included in a synthesis to COP 14; and requests the SPI to use the synthesis to report on lessons learned and collaborate with other scientific bodies.

The COP also launched the private Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, which is managed by Mirova. Despite it being heralded as the “next big thing” to drive efforts towards sustainable land management, and the years spent by the UNCCD Secretariat and the Global Mechanism to develop it, the fund is not yet operational, and is unlikely to have great impact. The Fund has a sound set of environmental and social safeguards in place, thanks to vigorous input and lobbying by civil society, which should limit the scope of those who might seek to use its resources to grab land used by vulnerable communities. The context of China’s unique Public Private Partnership approach to land restoration, as showcased throughout the COP in the huge and impressive Chinese Pavilion, and in the course of the lavish field trips, raised more questions than it provided answers. In the Chinese context, the initial drive has been controlling dust and sand storms that threatened the capital, resulting in vast efforts to plant trees on degraded pasturages on the steppe of Inner Mongolia. The overall ecological impact of these efforts is questionable, to say the least, and it is a model that will not easily transplant beyond the borders of this tightly managed state.

The Global Land Outlook (GLO) was published at the COP, and provides the first comprehensive overview of the state of the land at a global level. This 336 page publication is distributed by the UNCCD Secretariat (

In the course of the COP Noel Oettlé contributed to a number of Side Events reflecting practice and experience in South Africa that is relevant in the emerging debates on sustainable resources use. These included sessions on land governance, local initiatives to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality, the “4 per 1000 Initiative” on carbon sequestration in soils and Restoration for Peace and Profit. He also chaired a Side Event entitled  “South African Government’s response to Land Degradation and mitigating desertification in priority areas” convened by the Department of Environmental Affairs, and contributed to the statement on gender and land rights delivered by Deputy Minister Barbara Thompson.

This COP and the decisions taken by the Parties reflected an ever-improving level of focused CSO engagement, and the CSO delegates contributed to enriching the proceedings, providing important perspectives on the topics under debate and informing decisions.

A COP can be a daunting affair, with many parallel processes underway and slow progress on all fronts. In the case of COP 13, one of the final decisions was held up by objections from Turkey to having the word “water” included in the final text. This is what happens when a national agenda is pushed forward at the cost of global well-being. Nevertheless, in the balance this COP made some sound progress towards improving and enforcing global agreements aimed at conserving the world’s land-based resources, which are under threat from climate change and the relentless march of humanity.