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Modelling the socioeconomic, greenhouse gas and natural capital impacts of land use policy and opportunities (1)

Modelling the socioeconomic, greenhouse gas and natural capital impacts of land use policy and opportunities (1)

  • Land Use
  • 2022-2027
Sustainable Development icon: sustainable cities and communities
Sustainable Development icon: climate action
Sustainable Development icon: life on land


Rural land use occupies a pivotal position in some of the major debates about Scotland’s future. It shapes our landscape, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, yet offers significant opportunities to address these interlinked emergencies through new management approaches. Decisions are influenced by and need to balance a myriad of public and private sector drivers and landowner objectives. As such, the sphere of influence on rural land use crosses over multiple arenas of government activity.

Sustainable land use is vital for underpinning Scotland’s vitally important food and drink and tourism sectors, and as a resource base for economic development. The foundational role of land use means that the small headline economic contributions mask its role in underpinning sustainable and resilient rural economies and communities.

Scotland’s land use sector faces challenges over the next ten to twenty years in contributing to legally binding climate change targets. Although the greenhouse gas inventory is constantly evolving, the inventory does not reflect the heterogeneity of current emissions or the actual potential to improve across Scottish farms. Part of the challenge is that the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory treats agriculture and Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) as stand-alone, yet they remain fully integrated with the decisions of land managers.

Scotland’s challenges and opportunities in land use are being addressed through the adoption of more integrated and cross-sectoral approaches, including the creation of Rural Land Use Partnerships, and a greater focus on biodiversity and natural capital outcomes. The response and effectiveness of policy and management changes will vary spatially reflecting socio-economic and environmental conditions creating the need to better understand these spatial patterns and configure policy accordingly.

The key drivers of this project are:

  • Opportunities and constraints on land use depend on the economic impacts on land-based businesses and the condition of the underlying natural capital assets.
  • Responses to, analysis of, policy and land use change need to reflect these varying socio-ecological contexts.
  • The multiple benefits of land use are increasingly recognised as being crucial for sustainable land use, so need to be jointly considered in land use policy analysis and management.


  • How can we make more effective use of land by joining up approaches to managing land for different uses, and across larger scales?
  • How might land use in Scotland change in response to climate change, and how can we build resilience, or ways to adapt to this?


This project provides an overview of the policy influences on rural land use, including an assessment of policy conflict and complementarity. Land use is a complex socio-ecological system producing benefits for land managers alongside multiple benefits for society. Land use modelling allows us to explore baselines and how changing policy and management objectives influence land use patterns and their private and societal impacts.


Policy interactions with land use

Competing demands placed on rural land are driven by land manager/owner decisions influenced by myriad policies. These policies often have synergistic aims, objectives, and delivery approaches. Yet potential conflicts remain between the outcomes they deliver. We review policies influencing land use decisions to assess policy complementarities and conflicts. This provides an overview of the policy landscape building on Scotland’s Third Land Use Strategy. The review supports an ethos that moves away from a sector-by-sector approach towards an overarching holistic picture of what sustainable land use in Scotland could look like and avoids mixed messages and incentives for land managers that can be counter-productive to delivering objectives. This activity links directly with the spatial analysis of land-based financial support mechanisms in a complementary project.


Disaggregated and combined Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry & Agriculture inventory

Scotland’s Climate Change Plan maintains a sectoral approach to emission targets with specific reference to taking a whole-farm approach to emissions accounting. This project uses a variety of emissions accounting datasets and methodologies to develop an approach at the holding/business level. This approach addresses the explicit requirement of Scotland’s climate change targets, that Scottish Ministers’ take account of a whole-farm approach to emissions accounting. It endeavours to disaggregate research undertaken for the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory that established a national framework for sectoral emissions. Combining with technical efficiency metrics (building on the work for the Suckler Beef Climate Group) provides insights into baseline emissions and mitigation potential across heterogenous land-use businesses. This activity identifies emissions hotspot locations in combination with outputs from work elsewhere and provides a greater understanding of policy impacts and where climate change mitigation potential exists.



Modelling land use options

Two modelling approaches are being applied to analyse land use policy and management scenarios, how they impact economic outcomes in the farming sector, and wider natural capital and ecosystem services. Understanding how policy changes impact land-based businesses is key to understanding the likelihood and distribution of management changes and how incentives can be targeted. The two approaches are complementary in approaching land use scenario analysis from different perspectives. Microsimulation offers a bottom-up approach rooted in the economics of real farm businesses, extrapolated over wider geographies. Spatial Bayesian Belief Networks combine socioeconomic and biophysical data to assess multiple benefits. Both are allowing the resulting patterns of impacts to be evaluated spatially.


Overall, this project builds on and refines established methodologies to provide an appreciation of the spatial patterns of land use policy and land manager responses. The GHG Inventory is being disaggregated from a top-down level to identify patterns of emissions hotspots and mitigation potential. Different modelling techniques are identifying wider spatial patterns of impact and benefits from current and potential future land uses.

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