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We have almost breached our planetary boundary for land-use…

By Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 12.6% of the Earth’s land surface has been converted to cropland. A further 0.6% is covered with artificial surfaces such as cities, transportation networks and mines. Together this adds up to 19 million km2, an area equivalent to the size of China, Germany and USA combined.

The Planetary Boundaries Framework (Rockström, 2009) proposed that a safe threshold for land-use would be to ensure that no more than 15% of the global land surface is converted to cropland. So, we are currently within our planetary boundary, but only just…

Yet that does not tell the full story... Whilst the ratio of land per unit of crop production has improved over the past twenty years, an new consideration is the land needed for energy crops. Further, nearly 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded and half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. Based on current rates of soil degradation, by 2067 we will not have any topsoil left.

Why land-use matters and what are businesses doing?

Land-use as a planetary boundary is relevant to many businesses, including those reliant on land for their raw materials (agricultural suppliers; commodity traders; food manufacturers; retailers; forestry, packaging, mining, oil & gas) or reliant on access to land for infrastructure (construction; transport; manufacturing).

As part of our on-going research into how businesses can translate planetary boundaries to the scale of their organisation, we reviewed the targets being set in relation to land-use by 220 of the world’s largest companies. We found sobering figures:

  • Just 14 companies have set targets relating to land-use (31 targets in total).
  • Of these formal targets, 11 relate to deforestation or reforestation, with seven targets specifically referring to zero deforestation (therefore a limit-based approach).
  • Nine targets relate to reducing impact on land-use / forestry through the use of sustainably sourced paper and fibre. Five aim for 100% of paper / fibre from sustainable sources.
  • Twenty one of the thirty one targets are set to be achieved by 2020.
  • Seventeen of the companies reviewed, most notably in the mining sector, report their impact on land-use through the GRI indicators for land disturbed vs. land rehabilitated.

What can we do to improve the situation and what can businesses do?

In our research, we also spoke with 38 leading sustainability practitioners, who helped shed light on some of the challenges companies face when measuring, monitoring, and evaluating their impact on land use. These are the key points they identified.

  • Understanding their supply chain impact: for many companies, their biggest impact on land-use relates to the production of their raw materials, in particular land-use change, deforestation and soil-degradation due to agricultural production. Yet these raw materials are often sourced from complex global supply chains, presenting challenges to understanding, or working to address, impact.
  • Understanding localised impact: the availability of fertile land can vary from country to country, or indeed from field to field.
  • Understanding soil productivity of the land used: there is a challenge in valuing different forms of land and the functions they provide. For instance as flood plains, fertile land for agriculture, or as being important for water run-off.

Positively, the research did identify actions for organisations to focus on in an attempt to arrest the rapid conversion of land-use and ensure we remain within our planetary thresholds. Specific actions included.

  • Prioritise high-value land: for instance, protecting high value land such as High Carbon Stock Forests or High Conservation Value Areas.
  • Rehabilitate existing land rather than moving onto new land: focus on ensuring the continued fertility of existing land and the rehabilitation of previously degraded soils.
  • Improve the efficiency of land use: measure and set targets relating to efficiency of land-use, ensure that we are optimising the land already converted and reduce the demand for new conversion.
  • Explore new innovating alternatives to land: Urban farming, vertical agriculture and hydroponics are among new technolohies in which food can be produced with a smaller land footprint.

We need to go beyond measuring our land footprint and understand the value of the land being used. In particular, we need to ensure that the land converted is not degraded. With at least 80% of the world’s food coming from 11% of the land currently in use, and populations growing, time is running out for ensuring that we remain within our Planetary Boundary for land-use.

Article 13 can help you to integrate planetary boundaries and social thresholds into your business strategy, please do get in touch.

Our research explored how over 200 global companies approach the concept of planetary boundaries and social thresholds. To download an executive summary - click here

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