Land provides a wide range of goods and services to society. But with multiple demands placed on our land, both now and into the future, Claire Hoolohan and Maria Sharmina ask why are land-use policies failing to make the most of UK land?
Land is an invaluable resource that sustains much of the UK economy and provides vital goods and services to society. Yet competing demands for land – for example for housing, agriculture, biomass production, forestry, renewables, and landfill – are creating increasingly complicated planning challenges. Population growth and climate change are creating additional demands for land, and uncertain operating conditions. Consequently future decisions must balance disparate visions and objectives to ensure land-use planning remains resilient to increasing pressure on resources.
Our ESRC funded research, conducted at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, explores how nexus thinking, an approach recognising the interdependencies between water, energy and food, can help to identify potential pitfalls of disjointed policy and planning, and contribute towards a more integrated approach to land-use management.
We identify how a tradition of disjointed management often leaves water, energy and food in competition, with policies and tools ill-equipped to provide appropriate and sustainable solutions. For example, a focus exclusively on food would rarely take account of the potential demand for land for biomass production that contributes towards the UK’s energy and emissions reduction targets. Such a lack of integrated assessment reduces the potential to detect how actions and planning decisions in one sector can lead to substantial consequences in another.
Joined-up thinking required
Whilst we’d acknowledge that policymakers face an increasing challenge in how to manage the multiple demands placed on land, the approach to date is that most land-use policies remain compartmentalised. Our arguments are outlined in a paper which explores the interdependencies of the ‘water-energy-food nexus’ – the way in which food, water and energy systems are interconnected and impact on each other. Taking into account this model is key to developing more coherent policies that prioritise among competing demands.
There is a need for joined-up thinking; to look more widely at the whole ‘water-energy-food nexus’ and to explore the knock-on effects across different sectors when introducing new factors. This is key to making sure decision-making supports resilient land-use planning.
Some headway is being made – for example in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow-on and the State of Natural Capital reports published in 2014 – however progress towards such integrated policymaking is currently too slow to match the rate of ongoing environmental and demographic changes.
The inadequacy of existing policy approaches is even more apparent when you factor in the immediate and long-term challenges of climatic and demographic changes. An absence of an overarching land-use vision prevents policy-makers from assessing long-term consequences of their policies.
While both operational and strategic timelines are important for infrastructure investment, our research emphasises long-term considerations in decision-making. Given long lifetimes of infrastructures, today’s policies and current investment decisions will have lasting consequences.
Narrow and short-sighted land-use policies are likely to jeopardise the resilience of the UK to climate change, particularly given increasing and competing demand for water, energy and food. Worse still, decisions taken within the UK, could degrade the resilience of other parts of the world to their own challenges related to water, energy and food.
Looking forward: A nexus approach to land-use planning
Policymakers must take account of a number of thorny issues that we’ve identified in relation to the model of a nexus of water, energy and food. For example:
- What are the potential trade-offs (e.g. socio-economic and environmental) of meeting different policy objectives, such as bioenergy targets, water quality targets, food security?
- What additional nexus challenges does climate change present?
- Where are the main vulnerabilities of UK land-use, given current trends and policies? Do future land-use scenarios match the intended policy objectives?
- What further research is needed to assess the interdependencies and trade-offs between different blends of nexus components?
- How can academics assist policymakers through the provision of dynamic and flexible decision support tools?
- What underpins the design and implementation of an overarching longer-term vision for UK land use, that considers interdependencies across both space and time?
A more integrated approach
The next step would be to create a more integrated and interdisciplinary research programme to fully understand the links and trade-offs of the nexus and the dynamic resilience of the land-use system, given the challenges and policies discussed.
This would go some way towards helping to unite planning and modelling across different sectors, something that is overdue and could act as a catalyst for more strategic and comprehensive policies that take into account implications at regional and local levels.
With land in the UK already under pressure, we strongly urge policy-makers to devise a strategy that would ensure resilience and unlock the full value of UK land.