Q&A: How strategic land use can be a climate, biodiversity, and economic solution

A new joint report from the Natural Capital Project and the World Bank offers insight into how countries can optimize use of their natural resources in ways that balance both environmental and economic goals.

Today, the Natural Capital Project (NatCap) and the World Bank released a joint report, Nature’s Frontiers: Achieving Sustainability, Efficiency, and Prosperity with Natural Capital, offering a novel approach to addressing the foundational challenges of sustainability. The report uses the concept of “sustainable resource efficiency frontiers” to understand how 146 countries and economies can use their natural capital for more efficient and sustainable economic development.

Flight image of a reservoir, which highlights both natural and agricultural land. (Image credit: Albrecht Fietz/Pixabay)

Combining cutting-edge, integrated natural science and economic models with an extensive new global dataset, this report provides, for the first time, a way for countries to identify optimal uses of their land, water, and natural resources, with a focus on win-win strategies that meet both economic and environmental goals. Countries can use this information to evaluate trade-offs in benefits across alternative land uses (such as grazing vs. crops) to guide their policies.

The Natural Capital Project and the World Bank are hosting a free, hybrid panel event on June 30 to share this new report. Here, two leaders of NatCap, Stephen Polasky and Mary Ruckelhaus, discuss the origins, unique innovations, and policy implications of this work.

Polasky is Regents Professor and the Fesler-Lampert Chair in Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota and is one of the leaders of the Natural Capital Project’s ecosystem service mapping and valuation effort.

Ruckelshaus is executive director of the Natural Capital Project and a senior research associate at Stanford University.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Can you tell us about the origins of this project?

Polasky: The partnership with the World Bank and this global analysis grew out of conversations we were having about how to provide better tools for sustainable development planning with the World Bank’s member countries. In these conversations, we presented earlier work we had done on land management in the Willamette Basin in Oregon.

We had been part of efforts to improve outcomes for rural communities dependent on logging, while providing protection for endangered species such as the northern spotted owl. In one of NatCap’s earliest ecosystem service modeling efforts, we showed how landscape-level planning could improve both environmental outcomes (carbon, water quality, flood reduction, biodiversity conservation) and market-based economic returns from agriculture and forestry.

The World Bank saw how this approach could incorporate a wide range of interests and objectives, potentially diffusing tensions and showing parties with disparate goals that the environment and the economy are not a zero-sum game. Together, we wanted to make this possible on a global scale.


What did the team actually do to pull this together, and what makes this such a unique contribution?

Polasky: Most economic models focus on economic variables, such as agricultural productivity. And restoration or conservation models will tell you about biodiversity and carbon. We wanted to see how to support people’s livelihoods and local economies while also increasing biodiversity and carbon sequestration. For this, you need an integrated model that incorporates both economic and ecological components. Now because of this work, we can do this globally.

Part of the challenge was large gaps in data. For this project, we gathered and compiled globally consistent land cover maps, along with data on carbon, biodiversity, agricultural crop, grazing, and forestry, and worked with experts to fill in a lot of the gaps with more national-scale data. We put these data into InVEST, the Natural Capital Project’s suite of mapping tools, and then used optimization analysis – an additional innovation of this work – to derive sustainable resource efficiency frontiers for each country.

This approach of looking across multiple objectives has major advantages over prior work, which showed areas of land that would have good outcomes for a single objective, but might conflict with other objectives. Our approach allocates each plot of land to a given use, so that the sum total over the country delivers the best-combined outcomes across multiple objectives. We can also more clearly show the effects of potential changes in the way land is used, in a spatially specific way: for example, if a given plot of land is to be converted from farming to a reserve, we can show the environmental gains for carbon and biodiversity and the economic loss to the farmer.

Ruckelshaus: There are many layers of analysis in this that are new, and novel datasets that have never been compiled. The fact that we can now explore land- and water-use options, and say, “If we change the landscape in this way, this is the productive value that results,” is a total game-changer.


What can policymakers do with this information?

Polasky: Most reports are static and only show the current situation. But we want to be able to provide advice to policymakers for achieving their goals.

This is a tool that allows you to see the broader suite of benefits and think about how your management of landscapes affects all of the benefits provided by landscapes. If you think about one benefit or sector at a time, it narrows your options and makes it seem like a zero-sum situation, with each interest lobbying for itself. You can minimize some of these conflicts by looking across these interests and across the landscape more strategically.

Ruckelshaus: It’s important to note: we are not telling people what their preferences should be. Instead, this helps planners and other decision-makers imagine what is possible, using real landscape data. Underlying strategic decisions informed by this analysis are societal goals: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving biodiversity, and reaping production from landscapes. The analysis weighs all of these objectives equally, and people who use this can say how much they care about each. They can use this information to find where the win-wins are and illuminate the tradeoffs. And there are a lot of win-wins.


Why is this an important moment to be making use of this innovative approach?

Polasky: With adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Global Biodiversity Framework, things are starting to move faster on climate and on restoring nature – and we increasingly recognize how closely tied climate issues are with biodiversity, and with agriculture, and with water. The backlash is: what happens to the economy if we focus on addressing these other issues? It’s time we recognize that we need strategic planning to do the kinds of things we want to do. We are taking all of these goals seriously in this analysis and asking: how well can we do on all of these fronts?

A few key stats from the report:

  • For most countries, trade-offs between economic and environmental goals are not inevitable. For example, across the 146 countries, improved land use and management can increase total carbon storage collectively by 23%, with improvements in biodiversity and without loss of monetary returns. Alternatively, the net value of production from crops, grazing, and timber can increase by 83% without loss of climate mitigation or biodiversity.
  • On average, countries can almost double their economic returns or environmental outcomes by improving in one dimension without a sacrifice in the other.
  • Allocating land to its most-productive uses would allow some countries to produce up to 80% more in land-based revenue without adverse environmental impacts.
  • Better crop cultivation strategies and smarter spatial planning can reduce the land footprint of agriculture while increasing production of global calories by more than 150%.
  • More economically efficient air pollution policies could achieve the same reductions in pollution and mortality with a 60% cost savings.

This report is the product of a partnership among the World Bank Group, the Natural Capital Project, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Find the full report here. Join the online and in-person panel discussion with the authors about country-level applications of this work on June 30.