Sustainable productivity: creating a framework for multifunctional land use

Sustainable productivity: creating a framework for multifunctional land use
New report by the Royal Society considers how science and innovation can contribute to decision-making processes for UK land use.

At present, the UK is set to go over budget with our allocation of finite space: Additional land equivalent to the area of Northern Ireland will be needed by 2030 to meet current policy targets for Net Zero and biodiversity, if there is no change to current agricultural production, diets and food waste.

The natural capital of land affords us multiple benefits; from food production to climate change mitigation. Recent events such as extreme weather events, the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukraine war highlighted the need for resilience against global shocks.

Whilst land productivity has historically focused on agricultural market outputs, new non-financial objectives – such as carbon sequestration, flood protection or biodiversity – are now competing for the same finite land resources.

As pressure to move towards Net Zero mounts, land use policy is in the spotlight – currently accounting for approximately 12% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Modern food systems have come with steep environmental costs, whilst the resulting climate change could heavily impact the country economically.

Land-based mitigation could provide up to 30% of the UK’s planned net emissions reductions needed by 2050

Land is the UK’s most valuable asset, with an estimated value of £6.3 trillion (2020). Policy commitments currently include goals to protect natural capital, increase woodland cover, restore peatlands and scale up bioenergy crop production; alongside predicted increases in agricultural output related to population projections.

“The U.K. does not have enough land for any of it to be non-productive.” – Sir Charles Godfray FRS, Director of the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford.

Examples of co-existing land-use include: measures to increase biodiversity across farmed land; harnessing high-tech agricultural innovations without a negative environmental impact; scientific soil management; and increasing productivity of non-agricultural land. Planning different uses that can occur on the same land over different time spans necessitates a holistic approach.

The report calls for an overarching regulatory framework and multidisciplinary policy framework, to help tackle competing land-use priorities:

  •  A multifunctional decision-making approach, considering the synergies or trade-offs between different outputs from land use, could be used to maximize the benefits for multiple stakeholders and connected systems. Mapping how multiple objectives may be met by the same land resources could improve productivity.
  • More sustainable productivity, i.e. producing efficiently to maximize outputs for allocated land, whilst simultaneously reducing or reversing negative environmental effects.
  • The UK will be vulnerable without an upskilling of land managers, alongside innovation and technology. Thus, skills development for sustainable agricultural and environmental practices is key for future land policy.
  • Common data science standards may be harnessed to inform decisions and monitor progress against environmental and socioeconomic factors associated with land-use.
  • Transparent national frameworks are required to avoid the same land being committed to multiple incompatible project functions. Different regions and counties within the UK using shared methodologies would benefit planning decisions at all scales.

Read the full report: ‘Multifunctional landscapes: Informing a long-term vision for managing the UK’s land’.