12 June 2024

Large-scale government-driven changes to land use across agriculture, housing and energy could restore biodiversity and tackle climate change while simultaneously providing a wealth of benefits to people, says a new report published by international conservation charities ZSL and the British Ecological Society (BES).  

ZSL and BES’ report published today (Wednesday 12 June 2024) on Prioritising Land Use in the Midst of a Climate and Nature Emergency outlines both the benefit of a coordinated approach to transforming land use and how it can be achieved at scale by the next UK Government.

The report calls for an overhaul to the current approach to land management across government departments and makes clear that changes must be underpinned by commitments to decarbonisation, restoring biodiversity and sustainable development. The report also highlights the need for investment in identifying and prioritising opportunities where land use can accommodate multiple goals – such as the inclusion of nature-friendly spaces within new housing developments.  


Swallow flying through barn
Row of houses in the UK

Professor Nathalie Pettorelli, lead author and researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology explained: “The land serves so many purposes for us, from defining, in part, our cultural identity to influencing our mental health and wellbeing through access to nature; from providing space for our homes to food for our tables; for its role in regulating air and water; and of course, for underpinning the livelihoods of many. But land is also a finite resource.

“As we face the challenges of a rapidly changing climate, growing economic demands and declining biodiversity, land is a resource under increasing pressure.  

“Our current approach of how we use and engage with nature is untenable; through an ambitious and integrated approach, we can build a more productive, sustainable, health-providing, just, wildlife-protecting and resilient economy.”  

The authors further emphasise the need for ensuring action is driven by science and data – with the need to invest in efforts to monitor ecological, economic and social changes relating to land use, and using these to build reliable models that can be used to guide decision-making. Such forecasting is commonplace for other parts of the economy such as inflation, but this level of attention and resources are currently lacking for models that integrate the economy, environment and climate.  

Crops growing
Peregrin perching on side of a building

Using the United Kingdom as a case-study, the report assessed the opportunities and challenges that arise in developing a coordinated approach to land use that allows governments to tackle simultaneously issues around food and energy security, housing, carbon emissions and biodiversity.

The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, and one in six species are further at risk of being lost. The loss of species and the degradation of ecosystems have detrimental effects on the wider wellbeing of people, not only undermining the provision of clean air and water, but also increasing the risk of wildlife diseases spreading into human populations. Nature loss moreover amplifies the strength and impacts of the climate crisis.  

Nathalie added: “Land, climate, nature and people are highly entwined. With the upcoming UK general election, the incoming Government has the opportunity to reshape land use and introduce the transformational changes needed to meet our national and international commitments on both nature recovery and climate change mitigation and adaptation”.  

Matthew Gould, CEO of ZSL and co-author of the report added: “We don’t have enough land to do everything we want to do. So we need to get smarter – we need an integrated approach, underpinned by science, where we look in the round at what we need, from food to housing to energy to nature.  The Land Use Summit we hosted at ZSL showed the enthusiasm to work together towards a joined up, sustainable approach.” 

Bee on flowers in garden
Picture of British countryside

As the impacts of climate change grow, and with it increasing international tensions, there is growing pressure to invest in decarbonisation, national security and international action to ensure adequate protection of the world’s most vulnerable countries. Governments currently face increasing challenges of reduced ability to financially meet the costs of tackling these challenges - proper planning of land use is critical to building a more productive, sustainable and resilient economy vital to addressing these issues.  

Professor Tim Benton, Director of the Environment and Society Centre at Chatham House and co-author added: “The way we use land has to change – either because we make the choice now to build a more productive, sustainable and resilient economy, or because we will be forced to as the world around us continues to change. These changes may come with a cost, but it is significantly less costly to act now than face the price of inaction – and by taking a holistic approach to transform our land use, we can build a future that benefits all.”

Professor Bridget Emmett, President of the British Ecological Society said: “In the face of the climate and nature crises it is absolutely essential that nature is a key part of any land use policy. Nature is not, and cannot be seen as, a 'nice to have’, it is absolutely essential. Essential to our wellbeing and essential to the planet as a whole. At the same time, we must be vigilant of the risks of offshoring our ecological footprint elsewhere in the pursuit of a ‘green and pleasant land’.  

"To achieve the difficult balance of competing land use needs, an integrative approach must be taken with leadership from UK governments and collaboration between departments and devolved nations." 


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