5 item(s) found.

This thing called Land Use: Reflecting on a life in land use research

27 June 2019

This thing called Land Use: Reflecting on a life in land use research

Keith Matthews

The sign on the open plan door that I walk through on my way to my office says Land Use.  It has said Land Use since 1992 when I moved into our new building, opened to house the then five-year-old Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.  The sign has never changed, despite reorganisations, rebranding, reviews and mergers.  While there are no longer thematic departmental structures in the now James Hutton Institute, the sign still defines in two words an idea that profoundly shapes the professional and personal lives of a significant majority of the people who pass the sign each day.  It represents a community of practice with deep roots, but one which is, perhaps only now 27 year later, able to fully articulate the ambitions of the people who put the sign on the door.

To elaborate a little what this thing called land use research is I searched my book shelves for a vaguely remembered report I had been passed by a senior colleague from the Land Use Division on his retirement.  It has sat there largely undisturbed, surviving decluttering, as a piece of institutional history.  The report is a Review of Land Use Research in the UK (Birnie et al., 1995) and the contents are a fascinating time capsule which highlight what the original vision for land use research was and which allows readers today to reflect on how far their own state-of-the-art has advanced and how many of the problems faced in 1994 are still ahead of us now.

  • There is an increasing need to develop more coordinated research programmes in the future focused on major issues like sustainability. The wider rural socio-economy is generally a poorly researched topic …
  • The vision of agriculture as “the backbone of the rural economy “ is still prevalent […] this Review suggests that the rural economy a much more complex policy objective than is, for example, the wellbeing of agriculture.It raises issues […]that have seldom been considered together before.
  • Few scientific groups […] are capable of delivering across the range of disciplines involved. […] need to find ways of creating and nurturing such interdisciplinary groups if a coherent body of relevant knowledge, theory and expertise is to be developed.
  • […] for research to be classified as “land use science” […] it must seek explanation through an integrative, multi-disciplinary approach and preferably be focused on whole land systems[…] above the individual […] above the field”.
  • Little evidence of underpinning theoretical or methodological research that seeks either to develop a framework for integrated research of this type or develop a fundamental understanding of process.
  • There is the need to involve the user community in the research process where the output is specifically designed to support the policy process. […] little evidence of this […] little understanding of how this might be done […] far from clear how research findings are communicated […] to what extent research actually informs policy.

For the Hutton researchers in the MAGIC team our view would be that all the challenges identified above remain “live” issues but that projects like MAGIC are demonstrating progress and signposting ways forward.  The societal metabolism analyses pioneered by Mario Giampietro and others at UAB bring a theoretical coherence and analytical precision to the analysis of land use and provide a tractable way to make sense to the potentially overwhelming complexity.  Land Use research brings to societal metabolism analysis the insights of spatial analysis.  Yet even their combined scientific rigour still needs to be translated into outcomes and impacts.  Here the deliberative inclusive processes, crossing the science-policy interface using Quantitative Story Telling (QST) are key.  QST recognises that transdisciplinary research should strive to shape policy (colloquially speaking truth to power) but also that is must engage with and be shaped by stakeholders (post normal science).

The study of land use has never been more relevant with the recognition that the challenges faced by humanity are increasingly clearly not just socio-economic but also biophysical.  How populations cope with resource limits are old challenges, thought to have been consigned long ago to the text books of economic and social history (my first undergraduate lecture in 1985).  Yet whether Malthus proves to be wrong or not, may just depend on the temporal scale over which one considers the topic of land use.


Birnie, R.V., Morgan, R.J., Bateman, D., Potter, C., Shucksmith, M., Thompson, T.R.E., Webster, J.P.G., 1995. Review of land use research in the UK.  Part A: Executive Report. Report prepared on behalf of SOAFD under contract MLU/408/94., p. 26.

The climate change policy challenge: Balancing the multiple roles of land use

The climate change policy challenge: Balancing the multiple roles of land use

Mike Rivington

Responding appropriately to climate change presents many complex challenges for policy makers and other stakeholders, especially when considering the use of land for mitigation and adaptation purposes. This because they represent additional burdens imposed on the biosphere on top of all the others. The capability and capacity of land to provide goods and services will also be affected by climate change impacts (e.g. changes in rainfall amounts and extremes (IPCC 2018a). These impacts will coincide with population growth and increasing demand for resources per capita. Further, the quality of available land has been and continues to be degraded. The recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment Report painted a stark picture of degradation of the worlds ecosystems and loss of biodiversity (IPBES 2019).

For climate change mitigation, afforestation and bio-energy crops are argued as having the potential to capture carbon and reduce the use of fossil fuels. This makes them an essential component of policies to achieve net zero emissions as they can offset emissions from sectors where it will be neither technically feasible nor economically viable to eliminate GHG emissions (van Vuuren et al 2011). Yet any plantation woodland expansion within the EU would need to be set against the substantial losses of old growth forests in the tropics. This creates an additional demand on land, adding to the developing conflicting requirements made on it at a time of the need for increasing food security.

Cutting through this complexity is the need for policy makers to understand “what are the required changes in balance between land uses needed in order to keep temperature rise below 1.5°C?”. This question has been explored in the Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs) (Raihi et al 2017), and subsequent analysis of mitigation pathways (IPCC 2018b) to inform policy makers on opportunities for carbon dioxide removal. Figure 1 illustrates four alternative scenarios for the global land requirements for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation and the consequent reduction in the area of other land uses.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Land use changes (M ha) in 2050 and 2100 (in relation to 2010) in four socio-economic pathways (S1, S2, S5 and a Low Energy Demand LED) that are consistent in potentially limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C (IPCC 2018b).

All these 1.5°C scenarios have a reduction in area for food production, most noticeably in pasture, though much less so for the Low Energy Demand scenario (LED) (Grubler et al 2018). The reduction in crop and pasture areas are to enable increases in energy crops and forests. Such substantial changes in land use have very large consequences on existing land-based economies (e.g. the livestock industry) and societies and thus present complex trade-off issues. Add to this that there are difficulties of carbon accounting for such land used (e.g. see Nexus Times “Why it is so difficult to measure biofuel emissions”) and for competing land uses means the need to adequately frame and conduct analysis in a way that does not seek to “simplify out” or ignore the complexity.

To identify potential solutions to this complex set of problems (development pathways that lead to sustainability) within a Social Metabolism Analytical framework, it is helpful to use three key benchmarks:

  • Is the solution Feasible? Can the development pathway be achieved within the limits of available resources? Does it respect ecological limitations such as water availability restrictions and the need to maintain soil health? Therefore, is it physically feasible? 
  • Is the solution Viable? We in the EU currently solve feasibility problems by externalising them, e.g. by using imports, but what are the consequences of this? Will externalisation remain feasible during the period of transition to a new and sustainable state?
  • Is it Desirable? Does the pathway resolve some issues but not others, or compound other problems and therefore risk not achieving sustainability? What does it do for aims such as the Sustainable Development Goals?

These questions identify dependencies (e.g. risk of externalisation) that whilst trying to resolve one problem cause another. For example, in 2009 the EU set targets in the transport sector for renewables and the de-carbonization of fuels that lead to substantial investment in biofuels (Valin et al. 2015), the production of which were outside of the EU. Hence the development of the biofuels industry has driven the expansion of cultivated land (e.g. causing deforestation). This has posed substantial issues in carbon and environmental impact accounting (see Nexus Times “Meeting EU biofuel targets: the devil is in the detail”).

The details above have created a picture of a land use and climate change complex ‘wicked’ problem. It is yet unclear what a feasible, viable and desirable pathway solution looks like. What is clear, though, is that conventional economics-based approaches to cost benefit analysis, with limited risk assessment, single scale accounting and trade-off analysis whilst considering ecological and entropy limits, are inadequate to deal with such complex problems. Within the context of a deteriorating environmental state, growing resource demand and climate change pressures, land is a key medium through which to consider the food-energy-water nexus using a MAGIC Social Metabolism Analysis approach.


Grubler, A. et al., 2018: A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5°C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy, 3(6), 515–527, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-018-0172-6

Harrison P. A., Hauck J., Austrheim G., Brotons L., Cantele M., Claudet J., Fürst C., Guisan A., Harmáčková Z.V., Lavorel S. et al. dans Rounsevell M., Fischer M., Torre-Marin Rando A., Mader A. (eds.) IPBES (2018): The IPBES regional assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Europe and Central Asia, Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services.

IPCC (20118a) Special report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. Summary for Policymakers.

IPBES (2018b) Rogelj, J., D. Shindell, K. Jiang, S. Fifita, P. Forster, V. Ginzburg, C. Handa, H. Kheshgi, S. Kobayashi, E. Kriegler, L. Mundaca, R. Séférian, and M.V. Vilariño, 2018: Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)].

IPBES (2019). Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

Riahi K., D.P. vanVuuren, E. Kriegler, J. Edmonds, B.C. O’Neill, S. Fujimori, N. Bauer, K. Calvin, R. Dellink, O. Fricko, W. Lutz, A. Popp, J.C. Cuaresma, Samir KC, M. Leimbach, L. Jiang, T. Kram, S. Rao, M. Tavoni (2017) The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: An overview. Global Environmental Change 42, 153-168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.05.009 

Valin, H., Peters, D., van den Berg, M., Frank, S., Havlik, P.,Forsell, N. and Hamelinck, C. (2015) The land use change impact of biofuels consumed in the EU. Quantification of area and greenhouse gas impacts. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/Final%20Report_GLOBIOM_publication.pdf

van Vuuren, D. P., Edmonds, J., Kainuma, M., Riahi, K., Thomson, A., Hibbard, K., Hurtt, G. C., Kram, T., Krey, V., Lamarque, J. F., Masui, T., Meinshausen, M., Nakicenovic, N., Smith, S. J., & Rose, S. K. (2011). The representative concentration pathways: An overview. Climatic Change. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-011-0148-z



Balancing food production and biodiversity conservation

Balancing food production and biodiversity conservation

Akke Kok and Abigail Muscat

Agriculture causes some of the largest impacts of land use and is a key influence on biodiversity conservation. Agriculture has both negative and positive impacts on biodiversity. The conversion of natural land and changes in agricultural land use directly result in habitat loss and fragmentation. Also, agriculture contributes to environmental impacts such as climate change, that indirectly cause biodiversity decline. In contrast, agriculture is a major contributor to Europe’s biodiversity, through diverse farming traditions that have resulted in a wide range of agricultural landscapes. In aggregate, however, farmland biodiversity shows a rapid decline, due to changes in management such as intensification and industrialisation of agriculture. For example, populations of farmland birds have more than halved in the last three decades.

To effectively conserve biodiversity, we need to define what is biodiversity, and what targets to set. This is not a straightforward task. Defining biodiversity and setting targets relies, to a large extent, on stakeholder input and societal values. One stakeholder may wish to conserve a specific group of vulnerable or iconic species – such as meadow birds, whereas another focuses on generic conservation measures to reduce extinction risk across species within agriculture. Others may argue that it is better to produce food as intensively  as possible in a limited area, so as to spare other land from agriculture to conserve natural habitats, such as forest. Either way, creating or maintaining a suitable landscape for some species will potentially be less suitable for other species. Because it is not possible to boost all species everywhere while still delivering the provisioning services of food, fibre and increasingly energy, then one has to choose which landscapes and inhabiting species to conserve and to what extent.

The EU released the EU Biodiversity Strategy in 2011 to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 (European Commission, 2011). To ensure conservation of biodiversity in agriculture, the target is to maximise areas under agriculture covered by biodiversity related measures under the Common Agricultural Policy. However, biodiversity assessments at EU level have so far shown that biodiversity loss has continued, and that more stringent protection is required to stop biodiversity decline.

To develop more effective  scenarios for biodiversity conservation on agricultural land, we interviewed experts and stakeholders in biodiversity conservation and assessed proposals for conservation in the Netherlands and France. More heterogeneous landscapes and more extensive (i.e. lower intensity) production were key in their priorities to boost biodiversity. Our scenario calculations suggested that measures to conserve a specific species or habitat, could be realized with a limited overall impact on the existing patterns of land use and food production, because measures only applied to a limited share of the land. Going to more extensive practices to mainstream biodiversity conservation throughout agriculture, however, would have a much larger impact on food production, because it would affect all agricultural production. Especially in case of a large reduction in food production, this could result in intensification of production or land use change elsewhere. Alternatively, a reduction in food production could be achieved by less food waste, less over consumption, and dietary changes.

In conclusion, there is an unavoidable trade-off between biodiversity conservation and food production. Therefore, conservation scenarios may have unwanted effects in regions other than the conservation area due to land use change elsewhere. More effective biodiversity conservation will depend on societal values and stakeholder input around land use. Targets are needed, but policy-makers should be aware of the process, values, frames, and narratives behind these targets.

The tradeoff between land use and natural capital

27 June 2019

The tradeoff between land use and natural capital

Richard Aspinall and Michele Staiano

Our recently study of land use change in Scotland explored the sequence of changes in agricultural land use and the dynamics of change in provisioning services from agriculture in Scotland between 1940 and 2016. Among the changes associated with modernisation of land use in Scotland, our analysis identified some ways in which funds of capitals and flows of inputs and output ecosystem goods are linked to land management practices and policies.

Our analysis is summarised for each year from 1940 to 2016 in Figure 1, using a series of benchmarks computed from flows and funds.  Figure 1-a records the total financial inputs and outputs and total income from farming (at 2010 prices) and Figure 1-b the total energy inputs and outputs as well as the yearly balance (output-input). Results for inputs and outputs for both finance and energy follow the same general pattern of change over time, although the energy and economic efficiencies, measured as the ratio of outputs to inputs or simply as the excess of outputs over inputs, show two different patterns (Figure 1-a and b). The economic efficiency of Scotland’s farming system, taken as a whole, was greater, in real terms, before 1973, than since.  This period of greater efficiency coincides with the period of deficiency payments from 1947 until 1973, guaranteeing prices.  The energy efficiency, however, shows a different pattern, with increased efficiency following modernisation of agriculture and greater intensification after Britain joined the Common Market.

Figure 1: Our analysis is summarised for each year from 1940 to 2016, using a series of benchmarks computed from flows and funds

Figure 1-c shows two flow-flow ratios: food production efficiency of agriculture, as conversion of finance to energy (GJ energy output/£000 input) and the economic return on resource use by farming (£000 output value/TJ energy input). These two graphs combine the energy and economic output-input ratios, showing the complex change in efficiencies that have occurred between 1940 and 2016.  The graphs emphasise the changes summaries in the Nexus Times article (this issue) ‘Land use change connected with the evolution of farming systems – modernisation in practice’, placing these periods within a sequence of changes that have:

  • increased flows of provisioning goods through increased production,
  • increased the energy and resource use efficiency of farming, and
  • seen a decline in the economic efficiency and value (in real terms) of provisioning goods.

Figure 1-d shows the expenditure on fertiliser and lime inputs to Scotland’s farming from 1950 to 2016, highlighting a decrease in cost over time.  Figure 1-e however, shows the quantity of fertiliser used in Scotland each year, and particularly, the increase in nitrogen fertiliser used, albeit with a tendency to decrease since the early 1990s. 

This history of land use change, shows that although the energy efficiency and flow of goods per unit hectare and per unit labour have increased as farming has modernised, the inputs necessary to maintain those flows of ecosystem goods are also increasing, as their relative economic costs decrease.  Increases in use of fertiliser suggest that the natural capital fund is not being maintained without a large, and increasing, input.  Our analysis of the complexity of the coupled agricultural land system also shows that land management rather than biodiversity is a necessary subject for evaluation of provisioning services from agriculture, and that loss of natural capital under current management practices is unsustainable, given the large inputs of fertilisers that are required annually.


Aspinall, R. J. and Staiano, M. (forthcoming) Ecosystem services as the products of land system dynamics: lessons from a longitudinal study of coupled human-environment systems.  Landscape Ecology

The Nexus and Land: the spinning record and the pivot

27 June 2019

The Nexus and Land: the spinning record and the pivot

Michele Staiano and Richard Aspinall

The way we strive to capture the Nexus in the MAGIC project is with the aim of describing the key metabolic processes that make it possible for our societies to reproduce themselves. We are aware that these processes operate concurrently in different spheres and at various temporal as well as spatial scales; the MuSIASEM approach is precisely about addressing the relationships they show and highlighting them in story-telling to inform social debate and policy making.

Land should represent an unforgettable fund in resource accounting.  As a fund, land reflects not only the Earth's surface, but also land uses and the various land management systems that are the interactions of human activities with environmental resources. Those complex interactions make any attempt to model the processes even more challenging; nonetheless, it is useful to envision a conceptual model that describes land systems as a coupled human-environment system (Figure 1).

Land and land systems link to resource accounting and to the operation of multi-scale integrated assessment for nexus issues in a variety of ways.  Land represents a geographical area, defined by relevant boundaries; a production factor, in the sense that Ricardo, in the early 19th century, described land, labour and capital to identify a set of resources and their uses; and a set of geographically distributed human and environmental funds, qualities and processes.  As a geographic area, land gives a place-based foundation for analysis of how nexus issues affecting specific combinations of people and environments.  As a production factor and set of human and environmental funds, land embodies ideas of natural capital as the fund that yields a flow of ecosystem goods and services.  We argue that the roles and importance of natural capital are to be included in MuSIASEM, as a tool for investigating sustainability, through land systems and land use.

Understanding land use in sustainability and the nexus face a number of issues: Figure 1 could offer a glimpse of how many sub-systems, roles and processes express their interactions in the frame of land system.

(From Aspinall, R. J. and Staiano, M. (2017) A conceptual model for land systems dynamics as a coupled human-environment system. LAND, 6, 81  https://www.mdpi.com/2073-445X/6/4/81)

Figure 1

Figure 1: A conceptual model of land system1

So, where to start? In the Figure 2 we present the latitudinal distribution of land cover of the Earth, along with graphs of population density and elevation; this visualization clearly shows that also at global scale there are many ways to explore and examine data for human and environment systems and the way they interact, as we attempt to establish a sustainable future.

The upper frame of the Figure 2 includes a smooth graph of total population by latitude (based on 0.5-arc-minute resolution data) along with the plot of maximum and mean elevation. It gives a picture of the distribution of population on colonized land by latitude (see the labels of main continental areas under the graphs). In the lower frame the distribution of land cover by latitude is depicted. Even at a coarse scale it is easy to see how limited the potential area for expansion for cropland is and the link between the location of pasture land and higher population densities. From the combined reading of the two frames it appears clear that orography and climate leave limited opportunities for big adjustments at the global scale.

Figure 2: A visualization of Earth elevation (maximum and mean), population (upper frame) and area of land cover types by latitude (lower frame).

Land (through soil, land cover and land use) delivers a vast set of vital functions, primary productivity, water purification and regulation, carbon cycling and storage, recycling of other nutrients and wastes, habitats for biodiversity and cultural services (like landscape aesthetics and sense of place), that all sustain and enrich our lives.  

Metaphorically speaking, a working, balanced nexus that offers the possibility of sustainability, can be thought of as orchestral music played on a well-mixed record. All the parts are harmonized so that we can really enjoy the music, being at the same time able to listen to a single instrument and appreciate the richness of the ensemble. For people used to playing vinyl LPs, it is easy to be enchanted by the lucid disk calmly spinning and disregard the pivot at the centre of the turntable… The current issue of The Nexus Times highlights how land could play  that “pivotal” role in shaping a way to better understand and respond to the challenges of achieving sustainability within the water, energy, food and environment nexus.

Further readings:

Adhikari, K., Hartemink, A. E. (2016). Linking soils to ecosystem services — A global review, Geoderma, 262, 101-111. doi.org/10.1016/j.geoderma.2015.08.009

European Commission (EC) Regulation No 525/2013 of the European Parliament and the Council on a Mechanism for Monitoring and Reporting Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Other Information Relevant to Climate Change, Brussels (2016), http://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regdoc/rep/10102/2016/EN/SWD-2016-249-F1-EN-MAIN-PART-1.PDF

Lorenz, K, Lal, R, Ehlers, K. (2109). Soil organic carbon stock as an indicator for monitoring land and soil degradation in relation to United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Land Degrad Dev. 2019; 30: 824– 838. doi.org/10.1002/ldr.3270

O’Sullivan, L., Wall, D., Creamer, R., Bampa, F., & Schulte, R. P. O. (2018). Functional land management: Bridging the think-do-gap using a multi-stakeholder science policy interface. Ambio, 47(2), 216-230. doi.org/10.1007/s13280-017-0983-x

Schulte, R. P. O., Bampa, F., Bardy, M., Coyle, C., Creamer, R. E., Fealy, R., et al. (2015). Making the most of our land: Managing soil functions from local to continental scale, Frontiers in Environmental Science, 3, 81. doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2015.0008

Center for International Earth Science Information Network - CIESIN - Columbia University. 2018. Gridded Population of the World, Version 4 (GPWv4): Population Count, Revision 11. Palisades, NY: NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC). https://doi.org/10.7927/H4JW8BX5