The global land squeeze: Managing the growing competition for land (World Resources Institute)

Anna Triponel

September 8, 2023
Our key takeaway: The world’s population will grow to 10 billion by 2050. What does this mean for land? By 2050, land demand for agriculture will increase by 56%, for meat and milk production by 70% and for wood by 54%. To meet the agricultural demand alone, we will need to farm new land in areas adding up to roughly two times the size of India, WRI reports. Meat, milk, wood and biofuels come on top of that and increase pressures on the ecosystems in the land that we are not already farming or harvesting. A business-as-usual approach to land use, therefore, means more disruption and destruction of natural habitats and biodiversity, and it comes at a high “carbon opportunity cost.” Around 25% to 40% of all the emissions in our “budget” to limit warming to 1.5°C–2°C will go to farming, wood production and biofuel production from land use changes alone. This means we will drastically go over our budgeted carbon emissions unless we implement new systems that allow us to stop treating land as ‘free’ and start recognising it as our most valuable resource. WRI shares the models used to identify land-use competition, analyses the implications of increasing land-use demands, and describes actions that can allow us to both meet rising human needs for land and preserve the biodiversity and carbon stored in vegetation and soils. The "produce, protect, reduce, and restore” framework proposed carves the path towards curving growing demands for land, by addressing agricultural and forest-dependent production systems as well as our consumption habits. 

World Resources Institute (WRI) published the report Global land squeeze: Managing the growing competition for land (July 2023):

  • The global land squeeze in numbers. WRI is using land use models to identify the extent of the global land squeeze that we will be going into, as population grows to 10 billion by 2050. By 2050, land demand for agriculture will increase by 56%, for meat and milk production by 70% and for wood by 54%. To meet that demand by 2050, if business continues as usual, we will require an additional 600 million hectares (Mha) of agricultural land, which is roughly twice the size of India; an additional 800 Mha of forests, out of which 200 Mha correspond to existing plantations and about 600 Mha would need secondary forests; and an additional 80 Mha for urban growth. On top of that, emerging policies to incentivize use of biofuels and timber for construction (e.g., biofuel blending mandates and renewable energy standards in the United States and Europe and those proposed by the European Commission in its Forest Strategy for 2030) add to existing pressures on land use. Regarding biofuels, the study reports that “providing just 10 percent of transportation fuels from crop-based biofuels by 2050 would likely provide only 2 percent of global energy use in 2050 on a net basis; however, it would require roughly 30 percent of the energy in all the world’s crops as of 2010.” The report also claims that using wood for construction would be more efficient than burning plantations for biofuel but would still have costs which depend on the use case and production process.
  • Our growing demands on land come at a high “carbon opportunity cost.” Until this year, demand on land and land-use change has been growing as projected by the models, with conversion of forest into agricultural land for crops like rubber and oil palm, as well as conversion of rainforest into pastures. However, as WRI explains, “the world’s lands are already heavily used.” Humans had already “converted nearly half of all vegetated land to agriculture and had harvested or manipulated 60–85 percent of the world’s remaining forests by 2010.” These changes drive biodiversity loss and have “contributed between one-quarter and one-third of the carbon people have added to the atmosphere.” What this means is that, if the agricultural expansion described above continues until 2050 at the expense of forests, woody savannahs and peatlands, it would release from 25% to 40% of all maximum emissions in our “budget” to limit warming to 1.5°C–2°C. Wood production, for instance, contributes to emissions both by reducing carbon storage in forests through deforestation and by releasing carbon through decomposition. In sum, “virtually all climate change pathways that keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C require quickly ending net deforestation and reducing agricultural land use and achieving net reforestation by 2050.” The report demonstrates how “every hectare of land used to supply human consumption comes with a high ‘carbon opportunity cost.’”
  • Producing, protecting, reducing, and restoring to reduce pressures on land. According to WRI, actions to reduce pressures on land include: producing more food and wood on the land we already use; protecting native habitats that absorb carbon and protect biodiversity through implementing governance; reducing demand for land-intensive products – for example by eating less meat, wasting less food, reusing more wood, and dedicating less land to bioenergy; and, if the others actions as successful, restoring forests and other habitats where “carbon and biodiversity benefits are exceptional” or where “food production potential is low”. The “Produce, Protect, Reduce and Restore” framework aims to offer a holistic approach to the problem by tackling both consumption and production practices. For agricultural production, implementing the framework requires increasing crops and grazing yields dramatically, reducing food loss and waste and protecting and restoring forests and other natural habitats. It also means we need to consume less land-inefficient foods, “by shifting diets away from meat and milk, especially beef, towards plant-based foods.” For wood production, we should reduce by increasing recycling, reducing packaging materials, having more efficient wood-burning stoves, and transitioning to solar-powered heating in developing countries. It also requires that wood harvested is used for longer-lived products and less for shorter-lived purposes. Finally, as a general recommendation, WRI suggests that public policies do not increase demand for land-based products “until the world shows that it can meet rising food and wood demands without additional land conversion.”

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