Are we running out of space to be sustainable?

What’s happening? The world faces difficult decisions about how to use land most sustainably and effectively, according to 50 experts. The scientists argue there is insufficient land for projects to combat climate change and nature loss as well as food production and poverty alleviation. The analysis outlined key “hard truths” relating to the science of land use: land has multiple values; land-use dynamics are complex; land use affects global connections; there are multiple trade-offs; there are not many “win-wins”; land claims overlap; benefits are unequally distributed; land-use changes can be irreversible and small changes can have major “spillover” impacts. (BBC, PNAS)

Why does this matter? Land is a limited resource. The way it is used can exacerbate global environmental and social challenges – but with proper planning and management, it can also offer solutions to tackle sustainability issues more effectively and equitably.

The experts state there is only a small amount of land available and free for use to address several global issues and, unfortunately, trade-offs are a far more common outcome of land use decision-making than “win-win” solutions.

Ambitions to set aside vast amounts of land to protect biodiversity – including calls to rewild an area the size of China to put the world on track to meet its climate and nature targets – simply do not add up given the space that is available, the scientists say. Additionally, some ongoing restoration projects have run into constraints from land use crossover with conflict zones and climate impacts, such as Africa’s Great Green Wall project.

Double-edged sword – Using land for carbon sequestration rather than agriculture is another approach causing environmental and social tension. Large-scale tree planting for carbon offsetting to meet emissions targets could also lead to land-use conflicts and potentially risk food security.

Meanwhile, we’ve previously looked at how sourcing minerals for clean technologies can potentially pit a low-carbon transition and conservation against each other – especially as natural rare earth deposits often fall within biodiversity hotspots, with around 16% of mines located in areas of “remaining wilderness”.

Needing up to three times more land compared to conventional energy, renewable projects could also clash with protected land in the absence of policies and regulation.

Finding a solution in the sea – While land might be at a premium, utilising the ocean could relieve some pressure. We recently explored seaweed farming, for example, which is gaining popularity for several applications including biofuel creation and to capture CO2.

Managing land – Land inequalities, contested ownership and the impacts from changing land use are often unequally distributed. Giving back land ownership to local and Indigenous communities could offer a way to allow it to remain culturally and practically intact for forest-reliant groups, while ensuring its conservation.

Managing land use sustainably will require a more holistic perspective beyond a one-size-fits-all approach, which considers the other potential implications when solving one challenge and looks to efficient solutions to offer multiple benefits. Agroforestry practices, for example, could reap double advantages from the same land while benefiting food systems and carbon absorption, while some farmers are finding success in agrivoltaics.

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