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Land Degradation Neutrality: Challenges in Governance

Dear Reader,

Welcome back to my Blog Forum! Today’s blog tackles a new environmental problem: land degradation. Before delving into this particular challenge, I want to emphasise that climate change and environmental degradation constitute spheres that require emergency response from all actors if human populations and biodiversity are to flourish and thrive in the future. This is why today’s blog post is dedicated to an investigation into the lack of effectiveness that characterises land degradation governance despite the threat that land degradation represents.

Why, you might wonder, this focus on land degradation? As stated by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), land represents “the foundation of our societies.” Land is a natural water filter mechanism, it provides homes to our populations and ways of transport, allows for the insurance of food security and energy intakes, and is our “engine” for economic growth (UNCCD, n.d.). Despite the value of land for the world’s livelihoods, 24 billion tons of fertile soil, and 13 million hectares of forest are lost each year (UNCCD, n.d.). This is largely due to human activities, such as deforestation, logging, soil nutrient mining, cultivation on slopes, and pollution (Clingendael 2014). But land degradation also occurs because of consumption pattern shifts – particularly: shifts to diets rich in dairy and meat – owing to high incomes and the rise of emerging economies (Clingendael 2014). Land degradation adversely affects human food security and livelihoods, as well as biodiversity conservation.

Because of these trends and the contemporary loss of land's social and economic value, this blog post is dedicated to an analysis of the biggest challenge faced by international institutional governance in addressing the environmental problem of land degradation: a lack of effectiveness due to international regime complexity as a result of overlapping institutions.

Ready? Okay, let’s dive in!

“International regime complexity”: the buzzword characterising academic research on international environmental governance. But what does it mean? Alter and Meunier (2009) define international regime complexity is a notion that refers to “nested, partially overlapping, and parallel international regimes” that do not necessarily occur in hierarchical fashion. The governance of land degradation is complex – it is a system that comprises a large number of elements and building blocks that make up the whole and cannot be understood independently (Alter and Meunier 2009). The institutional complexity that characterises land degradation governance has adverse impacts on the contemporary structure's effectiveness (Young 2011). I will unpack this issue through the following steps. First, through a framing analysis, I will demonstrate that definitions on land degradation are inconsistent among institutions, as each of latter focuses on divergent aspects of the problem. Second, through an actor analysis, the plethora of actors working on achieving Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) is highlighted. I will zoom into one specific category of actors: international organisations party to the United Nations. Thirdly, I will address the thematic and institutional overlap that arise as a result of the amount of actors (highlighted in the actor analysis) and the fragmentation that characterises land degradation governance. Fragmentation leads to a lack in focus, funding and in-depth participation.

Throughout this blog post, I will rely on Young (2011)'s definition of institutional effectiveness "The concept of effectiveness as applied to environmental regimes is complex and subject to a variety of formulations. Perhaps the core concern is the extent to which regimes contribute to solving or mitigating the problems that motivate those people who create the regimes." Here, the aim is to achieve LDN.

Let’s unpack.

Framing Analysis: A Focus on Different Dimensions

Land degradation is multi-faceted. The reasons for and effects of land degradation are manifold. This has led to the environmental problem being framed through different lenses depending on institutions’ mandate and focus. Before delving into the framings provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), let’s conceptualise environmental problems.

O'Neill (2017) states that environmental problems can be global, transboundary, or local-cumulative in nature. Global environmental problems concern global commons: the atmosphere, the high seas and Antarctica. They are common property, which makes them susceptible to over-exploitation by a large range of actors. Transboundary environmental problems, such as air and river pollution, spill over from one country into another. Local-cumulative problems occur within national borders, yet have far-reaching consequences beyond the latter. As such, they affect local populations most directly, but have a distinct impact on the wider population too.

Land degradation can be situated within the local-cumulative paradigm. Impacts of land degradation in the form of food insecurity, displacement and conflict, are felt directly by local populations that rely on land for subsistence agriculture, livelihood sustenance and customs. More often than not, land degradation-affected stakeholders and communities have little to no voice on the global scale (O'Neill 2017).

Even though land degradation represents a local problem in initial stages, its cumulative character has led to international organisations taking on the task of addressing its causes and effects. The UNCCD and the CBD represent two actors concerned with reasons, while the FAO and the GEF are concerned with effects.

The UNCCD and the CBD rely on the same definition for land degradation. They combine both social and biodiversity-related factors in their definition on land degradation, putting particular emphasis on human activities being causal factors for the environmental problem. They define land degradation as: “the reduction or loss of the biological or economic productivity and complexity of rain fed cropland, irrigated cropland, or range, pasture, forest and woodlands resulting from a combination of pressures, including land use and management practices."

The FAO puts a special emphasis on the “goods and services” that are provided by land. “Land degradation has a wider scope than both soil erosion and soil degradation in that it covers all negative changes in the capacity of the ecosystem to provide goods and services (including biological and water related goods and services).”

The GEF states that "(l)and degradation—the deterioration or loss of the productive capacity of the soils for present and future—is a global challenge that affects everyone through food insecurity, higher food prices, climate change, environmental hazards, and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Land degradation is happening at an alarming pace, contributing to a dramatic decline in the productivity of croplands and rangelands worldwide."

A Plethora of Actors in Land Degradation Governance

Having briefly looked into the framing of land degradation by the UNCCD, the CBD, the FAO, and the GEF, let’s move on to look more precisely into the interlinkages between different actors concerned with land degradation. Before doing so, it needs to be understood that environmental governance is governed by 5 main categories of actors (O'Neill 2017), illustrated in the graph below: 1) nation-states (violet), 2) corporate sector (baby blue), 3) expert groups (yellow), 4) international organisations (electric blue), and 5) global environmental movements (red). With respect to the environmental problem of land degradation, all 5 categories of actors are working towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15.3: Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) (in green). LDN is defined as “a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems" by the UNCCD. Working towards the achievement of LDN is symbolised in green. Funding organisations or actors are depicted in light pink. The different edges between the various actors represent 1) membership (light red), 2) funding (turquoise), 3) information dissemination (ocean blue). The sizes of the nodes are indicative of importance: the bigger the node, the more influence and importance the actor has in the sphere of land degradation governance.

Figure 1: Actors working towards SDG 15.3

A plethora of actors is involved in the progress towards LDN. The focus here lies on the UN-related agencies concerned with the land degradation, because the “UN and its associated agencies play the largest direct role in global environmental governance” (O'Neill 2017). As illustrated in the graph, the UN comprises a dense network of agencies specialised in the domain of climate change, and more specifically, land degradation. Through an analysis of the UN subagencies, the fragmented nature of the land degradation regime is highlighted. Rather than the existence of one single regime/convention/organisation around land degradation, however, the actor analysis showcases the fragmented nature of land degradation governance. In contrast to the Alter and Meunier (2009)'s findings, however, there is a certain hierarchy in this particular governance structure. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) overlooks all agencies related to climate change mitigation and associated factors and is the largest and most encompassing structure with respect to climate change in the UN system (O'Neill 2017). With respect to land degradation specifically, the UNCCD's importance is unmatched. The UNCCD is the only legally binding agreement that combines biodiversity and sustainable land management (SLM). It comprises 197 members and puts an emphasis on collaboration with the civil society sector to ensure successful progress towards SDG 15.3. Its 2018-2030 Strategic framework is the most comprehensive commitment to LDN. It is collaborating with the CBD and the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to achieve the desired objective of LDN. Despite these promising preconditions, success in the management of land degradation is lacking (Young 2011). Why?

Regime complexity as a result of fragmentation has led to thematic and institutional overlaps, as well as inconsistencies in monitoring and reporting, and funding. Let's first take a look at thematic and institutional overlaps.

Thematic and Institutional Overlaps

The UN agencies presented in Figure 1 “partially overlap” – in line with the core tenets of international regime complexity (Alter and Meunier 2009). The UN agencies highlighted in Figure 1 share similar institutional characteristics, especially with regard to membership. The FAO, the UNCCD, the CBD, UNEP and the UNFCCC have more than 190 signatories, which implies that they share the large majority of the latter.

As outlined by the UNCCD, SDG 15.3 is directly linked to other SDGs. Working towards SDG 15.3 has a direct impact on SDG 1: Ending Poverty, SDG 2: Zero Hunger, SDG 5: Gender Equality, SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, and SDG 13: Climate Action. Because of the social dimension of land degradation, the governance of the environmental problem goes beyond an analysis of the effects on biodiversity conservation, but has to account for gender inequalities, food insecurity, and poverty, among others. Thus, the governance of the problem goes beyond one that is characterised by the involvement of environmental institutions towards one that includes institutions in whose mandates climate change mitigation does not feature as primary objective. While a number of organisations could have been chosen for such an analysis, such as the International Organization for Migration, I have chosen to incorporate the FAO as a result of its focus on land and soil for food and livelihood sustenance. Because the different UN branches depicted in Figure 1 work towards the same objectives under Agenda 2030, they thematically overlap. Let's look at this in more detail with respect to land degradation. The FAO's core mandate concerns food security, poverty alleviation and elimination of hunger. Because all three of the latter are directly linked to climate change, the FAO is engaged with soils and lands through the promotion of SLM. The CBD's mandate centres around biodiversity conservation and a benefit-sharing in conservation practices. Conservation of biodiversity is achieved through a correct treatment of land - the CBD's mandate is thus reliant on the work of the FAO. The UNCCD's core mandate is the achievement of LDN through a focus on drylands in developing countries. The UNFCCC takes a broad approach to climate change as the representing parent treaty of the Paris Agreement. It advocates for temperatures to return to pre-industrial levels. Global warming has direct adverse affects on land degradation, while the agricultural practices that lead to land degradation have a direct effect on global warming.

All different institutions are thus intertwined through parts of their mandates. Collaboration, however, lack transparency or is non-existent. Owing to the thematic overlap, inconsistencies arise. Before delving into this in more detail, have a look at Figure 2, which provides a summary and additional information on the interlinkages between the FAO, the CBD, the UNFCCC, the UNCCD, and the UNEP.

Figure 2: Thematic and Institutional Overlap


Thematic and institutional overlaps represent grounds for optimism, as both could lead to greater cooperation . Nevertheless, as the system currently functions, the overlap represents a challenge to precision and focus in successfully solving the land degradation governance challenge. Why? Watch the video as I dive into the notion of institutional fragmentation to understand the challenges of overlaps with respect to land degradation governance. This analysis is built on the insights provided by Zelli and von Asselt (2013), Alter and Meunier (2009), and Bernauer, Kalbhenn, Koubi & Spilker (2013).

Centralisation for Increased Focus

While criticism of current governance structures is valuable in that it helps to outline the current challenges and points for improvement, criticism is unwarranted if there are no suggestions for alternatives.

Currently, overlapping institutions and frameworks that lead to regime complexity in the domain of land degradation governance constitute the main challenge. Here, I advocate for a greater issue delineation of land degradation and a centralisation within the UN to improve focus, funding and consistency. As outlined throughout the Blog, conventions and organisations are in place to tackle the issue, but cooperation is slim. Collaboration challenges emerge as a result of fragmentation issues, which have led to divergent funding structures, inconsistencies in monitoring and reporting systems, and differences in the conceptualisation of the environmental problem of land degradation.

The Blog Post at hand aligns with Oberthür and Gehring (2004)'s analysis in their rejection of the idea of a World Environmental Organization. However, I argue in favour of a separate organisation to be created to tackle land degradation and to work towards LDN. I advocate for the creation of an organisation because I believe that it would lead to increased authority and autonomy for land degradation governance (Barnett and Finnemore 1999). This would occur through an increase in precision, in knowledge, and a concentration of expertise to tackle the complex set of tasks associated with land degradation (Barnett and Finnemore 1999). Rather than relying on different notions and definitions, the creation of an organisation could lead to the "classification" of knowledge and information, making it succinct and precise by "fixing meanings" (Barnett and Finnemore 1999).

In short, I advocate for a centralised system with a single funding mechanism, a single definition for land degradation, and consistent monitoring and reporting mechanisms to avoid the adverse effects of fragmentation and the regime complexity that emerges as a result of the latter. Transparency, legitimacy, accountability and consistency could improve. This might be a bold statement, but after in-depth analysis, this is the conclusion I've come to.

What do you think, dear Reader?

If you are interested in this topic and want to expand your knowledge base, here are the sources that I relied on for this particular blog post!

And also stay tuned for next week's post on the challenges that characterise the governance of e-waste!


CBD. "Framework and Guiding Principles for a Land Degradation Indicator to Monitor and Report on Progress towards Target 15.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Strategies Objectives of the Rio Conventions and other relevant Targets and Commitments." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

Clingendael. "Terra Incognita." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

FAO. "FAO Soils Portal." Last accessed June 8, 2021.,and%20services%20for%20its%20beneficiaries.

GEF. "Land Degradation." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

UNCCD. "Achieving Land Degradation Neutrality." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

UNCCD. "About the Convention." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

UNCCD. "Land and Sustainable Development Goals." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

UNCCD. "The LDN Target Setting Programme." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

UNCCD. "SDG indicator 15.3.1." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

UNFCCC. "About the Secretariat." Last accessed June 8, 2021.

Journal Articles:

Alter, Karen J. and Sophie Meunier. "The Politics of International Regime Complexity." Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 1 (2009): 13 - 24.

Barnett, Michael and Martha Finnemore. "The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations." International Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 699 - 732.

Bernauer, Thomas, Kalbhenn, Anna, Koubi, Vally, & Spilker, Gabriele. ”Is there a “Depth versus Participation” dilemma in international cooperation?”. The Review of International Organizations 8, no. 4 (2013): 477–497.

Oberthür Sebastian, and Thomas Gehring. "Reforming International Environmental Governance: An Institutionalist Critique of the Proposal for a World Environment Organisation." International Environmental Agreements 4 (2004): 359 - 381.

O’Neill, Kate. “Global environmental problems.” In The Environment and International Relations, 28–50. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

O’Neill, Kate. “Actors in Global Environmental Politics.” In The Environment and International Relations, 51–. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Young, Oran R. ”Effectiveness of international environmental regimes: Existing knowledge, cutting-edge themes, and research strategies”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 50 (2011): 19853–19860.

Zelli, Faribroz and Harro van Asselt. "The Institutional Fragmentation of Global Environmental Governance: Causes, Consequences, and Responses." Global Environmental Politics 13, no. 3 (2013): 1 - 13.

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