FUTURE conflicts and competition over resources are increasingly likely in coming decades as humanity faces a deepening “land crunch” – according to a new report from Chatham House.
Based on current approaches, the world has insufficient appropriate land to achieve climate and biodiversity goals, produce sufficient food, and meet increasing demands for other essential goods and services. In one scenario, there could be a global agricultural land deficit of 573 million hectares by 2050 – almost twice the size of India.
A growing, more prosperous population, decreasingly fertile soils due to climate change and industrial farming, threatened water supplies and misguided approaches to capturing carbon emissions are exacerbating the pressures. Unprecedented international cooperation will be required to avert disaster.
“Land has always been a strategic asset and the object of territorial ambitions and conflict. But at a time when planet is already being pushed beyond what it can sustainably support, we cannot keep trying to produce more from an essentially finite area,” says author Richard King.
“In the absence of international cooperation, the world simply will not have enough land to meet all of humanity’s requirements by mid-century. Governments will face a series of untenable choices such as between feeding people, meeting climate targets and preserving nature.”
To illuminate these issues, researchers have developed a Land Wealth Index (LWI) which indicates the extent and essential characteristics of the productive and environment-supporting lands of 163 countries worldwide. The US, Russia, Australia, and China are in the top four places.
The LWI shows that while total area is a significant determinant of a country’s land wealth, it is far from the only factor. A smaller country can rank highly if it has high-quality land or manages its land and resources well: as such, Germany ranks fifth, despite being only the 64th largest country.
Conversely, Algeria ranks 95th, despite being the 10th largest country in the world – showing the impact of degraded land. The similarly sized Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the most carbon – and biodiversity-rich countries in the world but is similarly constrained by governance, a rapidly growing population and vulnerability to land exploitation. It thus ranks only 56th in the LWI.
The report considers four future scenarios of how geopolitical changes might affect land use for better or worse, and how pressures on land might influence relations between countries. There are clear recommendations about the actions policymakers should take to reduce the pressures from humanity’s land-use footprint, to better govern global resources and to properly value land and finance its stewardship.
“The window to tackle these issues is closing but this is not an irresolvable dilemma. There are a wide range of actions policymakers can take to reduce the pressure on land, including transforming food systems, and using barren and degraded lands better. They should also reduce reliance on high-risk, unproven, and extremely land-hungry bioenergy and carbon capture projects; strengthen enforcement of land rights; and incentivise the protection of land by financing its stewardship,” said Professor Tim Benton, a report co-author.