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Earth Observations in Support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development- highlighting the UNCCD's approach to monitoring land degradation

In adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, world leaders agreed that a global Indicator framework was necessary to measure, monitor and report progress towards the 17 transformational Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated Targets. They also recognised the critical importance of “transparent and accountable scaling-up of appropriate public-private cooperation to exploit the contribution to be made by a wide range of data, including Earth observation and geospatial information, while ensuring national ownership in supporting and tracking progress”.

GEO convenes effective partnerships for societal benefit through use of free and open Earth observation (EO) data. The GEO Initiative ‘Earth Observations in Service of the 2030 Agenda’, together with the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) have issued a new report to highlight case studies of how EO responds to sustainable development, whether for health, disaster risk reduction or environmental protection

To track progress towards these Goals and Targets, the global Indicator framework must capture the multi-faceted and ambitious aspirations for the continued development of nations and societies. Effective reporting of progress toward these Indicators will require the use of multiple types of data, both what we have in hand – traditional national accounts, household surveys and routine administrative data – and new sources of data outside national statistical systems, notably Earth observations (EO) and geospatial information (GI), using modern data processing techniques more appropriate to large volumes of EO data. The integration of all these data can produce a quantum leap in how we monitor and track development and advance the well-being of our societies.

Earth Observations in Support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development- highlighting the UNCCD's approach to monitoring land degradation

While ensuring national ownership and retaining the flexibility for countries to use their national data, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has outlined a standardized approach for reporting on SDG Indicator 15.3.1, which focuses primarily
on the use of three sub-Indicators:

  1. Land Cover and Land Cover Change;
  2. Land Productivity; and
  3. Carbon Stocks above and below ground.

Such a framework gives options for countries to use Earth Observation, geospatial information and other global/regional
data sources in the absence of, or to complement and enhance, national data sources.

In 2015, the UNCCD secretariat conducted a Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) Target Setting pilot project with 14 volunteer countries from all continents to design and test a methodological and operational framework to achieve LDN and report on SDG 15.3.1. This pilot project of the UNCCD to set voluntary targets in sustainable land management and monitor progress is based on a harmonized set of 3 measurable sub-Indicators: (1) land cover and land cover change, (2) land productivity trends and (3) soil organic carbon trends, with the first two global data sets entirely based on satellite Earth Observation data.

This effort is continued in a LDN Target Setting Programme (LDN-TSP) with over 100 UNCCD countries, with the objective to help countries formulating voluntary targets to achieve LDN and incorporating them in UNCCD National Action Plans (NAPs). Earth Observation Data Use Earth Observations from Space have proven their reliability to track land cover change and biomass activity over long periods.

As many countries, in particular from the developing world, face difficulties to access this type of information, UNCCD has established partnerships with the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC) and the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC) to provide all interested countries with extractions of global datasets as default information for their LDN target setting process: (1) Land Cover (CCI-Land Cover) from the ESA Land Cover Climate Change Initiative, (2) Land Productivity Dynamics (LPD) from JRC and (3) Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) from ISRIC.

The work has focused on development of an agreed methodology to combine the three sub-Indicators into a measurement of the proportion of land that is degraded, which is required in order to fully implement the SDG Indicator 15.3.1.
While there is no single complex indicator which can unambiguously report on land degradation and restoration, monitoring efforts are nevertheless feasible when considering the three sub-Indicators in combination. These methods are being developed with the assistance of institutions including the CSIRO.

Key Issues and Results
The LDN Target Setting pilot project has demonstrated the utility of global data sets on LC and LPD derived from satellite observations. Pilot countries have been able to use these global datasets in combination with their national data to set their national LDN targets.

Good practice guidance for each of the three sub-Indicators is essential to support countries in their measurement and evaluation of LC/LPD/SOC changes, and in their combination to assess land degradation. By summing those areas subject to changes (according to the three sub-Indicators), and whose conditions are considered negative by national authorities (i.e., land degradation), countries would be able to determine their pathway to deriving Indicator 15.3.1.

Analysis, Status, and Outlook
Although the existing global data sets (ESA CCILand Cover, JRC LPD and ISRIC SOC) have been adequately used by pilot countries to conduct their LDN target setting, the moderate resolution of these datasets is an issue, especially in mountainous regions, small island states and highly fragmented landscapes (patchiness of different LC types).

There is a need to move to high resolution datasets.

The future will involve development of methodologies for the production of higher resolution (10-30m) global data sets for all three 15.3.1 sub-Indicators and support for countries on the integration of national data sets and knowledge to properly assess the complex process of land and soil degradation in their territory.