By Claire Asher, on 9 August 2013
Nearly three-quarters of the UK is agricultural land and decisions about land use fundamentally effect all of us through their effects on the cost and availability of food, pollution and climate change, and the availability of land for other purposes such as recreation and housing. Traditional strategies for determining land-use are based on the market value of the produce, ignoring the value of ecosystem services and variability of the environment across the UK. However, ignoring these factors will lead to economic losses by 2060, recent research in collaboration between the University of East Anglia and University College London reveals. Future policy must account for the total value of land, and apply policy in a non-uniform way in order to maximise the long-term benefits of our land-use decisions.
The UK is one of the most altered ecosystems in the World, and its land is dominated by agriculture. Nearly 75% of UK soil (that’s 18.4 million hectares!) is agricultural. Decisions about how to use our land have traditionally used a one-size-fits-all, market-driven approach, but recent research in UCL’s GEE and UEA’s CSERGE indicates this might not be the best approach for maximising long-term benefits.
Using data from a variety of sources, including the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which generated a fine-scale dataset of land-use records in the UK covering a 40-year period, UCL’s Professor Georgina Mace, Professor Ian Bateman and collegues at UEA modelled the future of UK land-use, considering the heterogeneous value of whole ecosystems under different climate change and policy scenarios. The models included environmental variables (soil type, slope, temperature and rainfall), policy variables (subsidies, tax and constraints), market forces and technological advances, under a range of climate scenarios until 2060. Considering purely the market value of produce, a policy of weak environmental regulation was favoured, but this was not the case when the value of ecosystem services such as reduced green-house gas emissions and recreational land-use were considered. For the UK as a whole, the greatest net gains were achieved under stricter environmental regulation. In particular the ‘nature at work’ policy scenario, which considers whole ecosystem function and prioritises recreational green-space in urban environments, produced the largest net gains.
However, the pattern of gains and losses in the monetary value of land varied across the country, with weaker environmental regulation favoured in north west Britain. They therefore also considered models which allowed policy to vary across the UK. Selecting a policy scenario for each area based on both market value and ecosystem services yielded net benefits of 20% across the UK, with much larger gains in highly populated areas. Converting relatively small areas of land towards recreation and green-space was of extremely high value in urban areas, at a relatively small cost to agriculture.
One interesting finding was that applying conservation priorities came at minimal cost. As well as investigating ecosystem variables with a measurable market value (e.g. green house gas emissions), they also considered more abstract factors such as biodiversity. Imposing restrictions which minimised biodiversity loss rarely influenced the best policy scenario, and resulted in only minor reductions in economic gains. This suggests that with an integrated approach to policy-making, we can achieve conservation priorities with minimal impact to our economic prosperity.
Overall, the best strategy for the future of UK land-use will be an approach that considers the total value of land, rather than just the market value of agricultural produce, and one that considers different regions separately based on environmental characteristics such as soil type, temperature and rainfall. However, these types of changes may be difficult to implement; the most beneficial land-use strategy may not be privately beneficial for the land manager, and geographically variable policy is more administratively complex. The authors suggest that reform in the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would improve the effectiveness of land-use policy. Currently, CAP pays more than £3 billion a year in subsidies to UK farmers, with little consideration to environmental performance. Switching to a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) system that rewards farmers for a variety of ecosystem services could allow policy-makers to achieve beneficial land-use change in the long term.
The fate of the UK landscape has traditionally been directed by the agricultural market, without attention to the value of ecosystem services. However, in a paper last month in Science, researchers at the University of East Anglia and University College London presented computer simulations based upon extensive data for the UK, which indicated this policy will not make the best use of our land over the coming decades. Instead, a system of increased environmental regulation tailored specifically to different geographical areas would maximise the monetary value of our land, and enacting conservation priorities within this framework comes at minimal cost.
This research was made possible by funding from the UK-NEA and its Follow-On program, which are together supported by UK Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Social and Environmental Economic Research (SEER) project.