Making the Case for More Science in U.N. Efforts to Combat Global Desertification

September 30, 2009
Contact:

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

DURHAM, N.C. – The effectiveness of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has been hindered since its creation in 1992 by a widely perceived lack of scientific assessment in its programs and initiatives. But that’s changing now, due in part to the scholarship and persistence of a Nicholas School faculty member.

James F. Reynolds, professor of environmental sciences and biology, has long advocated for the use of an integrated science-based framework for UNCCD programs. He presented a keynote address on the topic at a major international scientific conference in support of UNCCD in Buenos Aires on Sept. 23.

The conference, which attracted 250 delegates from the 115 countries that have ratified the U.N. convention, was organized by the Dryland Science for Development Consortium at the request of the UNCCD’s Committee on Science and Technology. It was held in connection with the Ninth Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the UNCCD.

Reynolds has published widely cited studies on desertification and land degradation in arid and semi-arid rangelands. He is particularly well known for his experimental and modeling studies of the effects of elevated carbon dioxide and rainfall variability on dryland ecosystems.

In his Buenos Aires keynote, he expanded on recommendations he first made in a paper published in 2007 in the journal Science, in which he and his co-authors argued that the UNCCD and its related efforts received comparatively little creditable exposure in the popular and scientific media, in part because of the absence of a focused international science program.

The paper laid out the basic principles of Reynolds’ Dryland Development Paradigm for sustainable long-term management of the Earth’s dryland resources.

Reynolds told the delegates in Buenos Aires that integrated scientific assessment is “like a toolbox” for monitoring and assessing the complex issues involved in land degradation and desertification today. Armed with the right tools, UNCCD can provide the timely guidance the world’s leaders need to thwart desertification and make wise decisions about land and water management in dryland ecosystems.

Drylands make up more than 40 percent of global land area and are home to nearly 35 percent of the Earth’s people. As much as 20 percent of this land has already been affected by desertification caused by a combination of human activity and climate conditions.

Degraded drylands are marked by dramatic declines in biodiversity and agricultural productivity that can exacerbate rural poverty and undermine social and political stability. Degraded drylands also cease to perform key environmental services, such as carbon sequestration. Soils in dry areas are estimated to contain more than a quarter of Earth’s total stores of organic carbon. Yet, as these lands are degraded, they release carbon into the atmosphere, accounting for about 4 percent of total global emissions each year.

Climate change is expected to expand drylands by 11 percent globally, according to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientists predict this will worsen desertification, mainly by increasing the frequency and severity of drought.

Reynolds told the gathered delegates in Buenos Aires that the main technical barrier to progress in combating desertification has been a lack of standardized, science-based methods for monitoring and assessing land degradation, and progress in combating it through advances in science and technology. Current policies and procedures, he said, have tended to focus more on symptoms than on underlying causes and potential solutions. And they have failed to deliver results in forms that help policy makers decide how best to confront the problem on a national and regional scale.

Following Reynolds’ keynote address, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja unexpectedly arrived in the conference hall and took the podium to thank the delegates for taking part in “this new science effort.” Much to Reynolds’ surprise, Gnacadja then took out a piece of paper and began quoting from Reynolds’ critical 2007 Science paper citing the need for a new “roadmap…paved with science” for UNCCD to follow.

“He was unaware that the author was sitting next to him on the podium and that I had begun my talk with a slide emphasizing the same quote from the paper,” Reynolds says. “It was a perfect endorsement of my talk, from the Executive Secretary, no less!”

By the conference’s end, the delegates had approved new science research recommendations for the UNCCD that explicitly included the adoption of the Dryland Development Paradigm. “The paradigm is now part of the UNCCD lexicon,” Reynolds reports. “I am pleased but admittedly amazed at its rapid acceptance and how it has been embraced at all levels of the convention.”

For more information about the conference, visit the UNCCD Web site at www.unccd.int.