Understanding Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF)
An overview of LULUCF and its impact on carbon, biodiversity, & ecosystem services
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Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) and its impact on our climate

As the world population grows, so do timber demand and land use. Human expansion and the need to grow food, build homes, and extract resources have affected land use and forestry. 

This increases pressure on forests and other natural habitats. Land-use change, including deforestation, impacts greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and the ecosystem. 

Implementing sustainable land-use practices can enhance the mitigation potential to avoid climate disasters. These include agroforestry, conservation of natural forestry, and forest regrowth. Positive land use can then protect the environment for future generations. 

This article will explore 

  1. The impact of land-use change and forestry on the environment.
  2. The benefits of sustainable land use practices.
  3. The steps we can take to ensure a greener and more livable planet.

Ultimately, striking a balance between the benefits and drawbacks of land-use change and forestry is crucial in mitigating the negative environmental impact and addressing climate change.

Illustration depicting a piece of land with trees, green grass, and windmills. The illustration also shows the underground wellness of the soil. The image showcases the concept of sustainable land use, with healthy vegetation, renewable energy generation through windmills, and a representation of the healthy soil ecosystem. It conveys the potential benefits of sustainable land use practices, including environmental conservation, carbon sequestration, and soil health.

What is the meaning of land-use change and forestry?

“Land use, land-use change, and forestry” ( LULUCF ) is a collective term used in international climate policy. It may also be referred to as “forestry and other land use” (FOLU),

In national greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories, LULUCF is a sector that includes the emissions released and captured by managed areas of land.

Land use, land-use change and forestry also each have their meanings.

  • Land use refers to how humans use and manage land and its natural resources. It can include agriculture, urban development, and resource extraction.
  • Land-use change is any alteration of the natural landscape by humans. It can consist of permanent destruction, such as urban expansion, and attempts to restore land, such as forest restoration.
  • Forestry refers to the practice of managing forests, including the planting, harvesting, and protection of trees and other vegetation. It can include sustainable and unsustainable practices and significantly impact land use and the environment.

Why is biodiversity important, and how does land use change and forestry affect it?

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life in a particular ecosystem or on Earth. land-use change and forestry can significantly impact biodiversity, both positively and negatively, by creating or destroying habitats for different species.

Why is biodiversity important, and how does land-use change and forestry affect it?

How does the use of land and forestry affect carbon dynamics?

Land use plays both a positive and negative role in climate change. The environmental impact of land-use change can be seen in the loss of carbon sinks, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. It can also contribute to climate change by releasing carbon stored in trees and soil.

The potential benefits of sustainable land-use change and forestry practices include

  • carbon sequestration
  • water regulation
  • improved soil fertility and productivity
  • strengthening soil structural stability against erosion
  • biodiversity conservation

The cause and effects of land-use change are varied and depend on the location. In the United States, land-use change is mainly driven by human activities such as agricultural expansion, urban growth and forestry. Natural disasters such as wildfires, drought, floods and hurricanes can also cause land-use change.

Areas of South Asia and Africa, like Bangladesh and Mozambique, risk difficult living conditions and economic turmoil as climate change takes hold. This will lead to increased climate migration from affected countries. The World Bank estimates that 216m people will be forced to migrate by 2050 because of climate change.

Where has changing land use and forestry harmed the environment?

The negative impacts of land-use change and forestry have been felt in many countries.

  1. Climate disruption. The Brazillian part of the Amazon is one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse rainforests. It also now produces more carbon dioxide than it absorbs after deforestation increased 4-fold between 2018 and 2019. Deforestation releases the carbon stored in trees and soil and eliminates a significant carbon sink. 
  2. Biodiversity loss. The Brazilian Cerrado is one of the most biodiverse savannas in the world. However, the conversion of land for agriculture leads to the loss of habitats and endangers various plant and animal species. 
  3. Soil degradation. The transformation of natural habitats to agricultural land in the Great Plains of the United States has led to soil erosion and degradation. It makes it harder for plants and trees to grow, leading to desertification and loss of productivity.
  4. Loss of ecosystem. Deforestation can impact ecosystem services such as water regulation, soil conservation, and pest control. The Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) suggest the rainforest is approaching a ‘tipping point’. Having lost 185 million acres of forests since 1978, it has experienced 17% deforestation. The ACA suggest that once 25% of forestry has been destroyed, it will no longer generate enough rainfall to support its ecosystem. 
  5. Flooding. The destruction of mangrove forests in the delta region of Bangladesh has increased the risk of flooding by reducing the amount of water absorbed and stored by trees and forests. This is causing problems such as increased flooding and saltwater intrusion. In May 2022, millions were left affected by flooding in Northeastern Bangladesh.
  6. Air quality degradation. The destruction of the tropical rainforests in Malaysia contributes to air quality degradation and pollution. Deforestation reduces the number of trees and vegetation that absorb pollutants and release oxygen.
  7. Water quality and quantity. Modifications in land use can have an impact on water quality by altering water cycles and reducing the amount of clean water available. These effects can be caused by increased sedimentation, pollution from agricultural runoff (pesticides, fertilisers), and decreased infiltration.
Today's US golf courses could host almost five times todays solar
How else could we use our land? (Source: Nat Bullard)

What has caused changes in land use?

The most common causes of land-use change are converting land for agricultural use, urban expansion, deforestation, and climate change.

  • Agriculture requires converting land for cropland and pasture, which can lead to the destruction of valuable ecosystems. The main cause of land-use change in farming is population increase and the shift to more meat and dairy diets.
  • Deforestation can lead to the clearing of forests for new buildable space.
  • Urban expansion can lead to the construction of roads, bridges, homes, and businesses on previously untouched land.
  • Mining and extraction. Because of the need for minerals, oil, and gas extraction, ecosystems are disrupted, and land is cleared for mining activities.
  • Climate change and extreme weather events can lead to drastic environmental alterations. This includes drying savannahs, trees dying from water stress, flooding and migration to new locations as citizens flee inhospitable terrains.

These activities have caused a significant land-use change in the past century, with estimates of up to three-quarters of Earth’s land surface severely altered by human activities.

1. Agriculture

Population growth is the main factor influencing changes in agricultural land usage.

As the population increases, more land needs to be converted to cropland and pasture to meet the growing demand for food.

Additionally, as people become wealthier, they tend to consume more meat and dairy, which requires more land for animal agriculture. This has led to deforestation, clearing forests for cattle ranches and intensive soy plantations. All of these activities contribute to land-use change caused by agriculture.

According to World in Data, almost half of habitable land is used for agriculture. This leaves only 38% for forestry, 14% for shrubbery, and 1% for freshwater. Incidentally, only 1% is available for urban and built-up land.

46% of habitable land-use is taken by agriculture (Source: World in Data https://ourworldindata.org/land-use)
Source: Our World in Data

It also becomes clear from the above chart that over three-quarters of agricultural land is used for livestock, meat and dairy. Yet, these three items only provide 18% of calories and 37% of protein globally. This supports the argument that veganism can play an essential role in reducing emissions. Meat production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, The Economist suggests that going vegan for two-thirds of meals could cut food-related carbon emissions by 60%.

Agricultural land-use - going vegan for two-thirds of meals could cut food-related carbon emissions by 60% (Source - The Economist https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2019/11/15/how-much-would-giving-up-meat-help-the-environment)
Source: The Economist 

2. Forest clearance, deforestation and wood harvesting

Forest clearance involves removing trees and clearing forest areas to use the land for other activities. This results in removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and destroying biodiversity.

Deforestation is converting forested to non-forested areas through human activities such as logging, agriculture, and urbanisation.

Deforestation increases emissions by releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. When vegetation is cleared and forests are cut down, the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. 

This not only reduces the capacity of the land to sequester human-caused carbon emissions. It also disrupts natural processes such as helping the soil retain its moisture, keeping the air humid, and reducing the amount of sunlight that gets through. As a result, the surface energy balance is altered, potentially leading to warmer or cooler surface temperatures.

Deforestation can disturb the balance of the carbon cycle and increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As forests act as a sink for carbon by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, their destruction reduces the amount of carbon stored. The resulting emissions from burning and decaying vegetation further contribute to global climate change.

Wood harvesting significantly affects land-use change, especially when the demand for engineered wood increases with the new urban population influx. 

Strong governance and careful planning are necessary to ensure a sustainable transition to timber cities, even if frontier forests and biodiversity hotspots are protected.

3. Urban expansion and infrastructure development

Urban expansion, also known as urban sprawl or human expansion, refers to cities growing and consuming more land. As cities expand, they typically convert natural habitats such as forests, wetlands, and grasslands into urban development. This can include the construction of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure. Urbanisation can also lead to increased water, energy, and materials demand.

Urbanisation can lead to the fragmentation of natural habitats, negatively impacting biodiversity and ecosystem services. Urban expansion can also lead to the loss of farmland and other productive lands, affecting food security and other socio-economic factors.

Additionally, human expansion can lead to the displacement and loss of traditional ways of life for people who have lived in these areas for generations.

4. Climate change and natural disasters

Climate change affects land-use change in multiple ways. Rising temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, and frequent extreme weather events can alter land-use practices.

  • Warmer temperatures can lead to more severe and frequent wildfires. Wildfires can cause a rapid loss of forest land and a shift in land use from forest to non-forested areas.
  • Drought can reduce or eliminate vegetation, making the land unsuitable for forest growth. 
  • Floods can alter a region’s hydrology, leading to land-use changes.
  • Hurricanes can cause extensive infrastructure damage and result in land-use changes.
  • Rising temperatures due to climate change can increase water stress, which can cause forests to shift to savannah-like states. This leads to a decrease in carbon sequestration, ecosystem services and wildlife.

In some cases, land-use change can also contribute to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as land clearing for agricultural use results in deforestation. All of these changes can have profound effects on people and the environment.

Land use and the forestry sector can also positively impact the environment.

Positive ways land and forest management can combat climate change and mitigate fossil fuel emissions include:

  1. Agroforestry is the integration of trees into agricultural landscapes, such as planting trees on farm borders, intercropping, and alley cropping. Agroforestry can provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and improved soil health. It can also help increase the farmland’s productivity.
  2. Biodiversity conservation. Well-managed forests can provide essential habitats for various plant and animal species and help protect biodiversity.
  3. Ecosystem services. Forests provide a range of ecosystem services, such as water regulation, soil conservation, and pest control, all of which are essential for human well-being.
  4. Sustainable forestry is a holistic approach to managing forests that considers the ecological, economic, and social values of forestry. This can include practices such as selective logging, agroforestry, and conservation of natural forest areas which help carbon sequestration. This differs from traditional forestry practices that focus mainly on extracting resources without considering the long-term impacts on the environment.
  5. Soil health. Trees and forests can help to improve soil health by adding organic matter and reducing erosion.
  6. Climate regulation. Forests can help to regulate local and global climates by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing water vapour.
  7. Flood control. Trees and forests can help to reduce the risk of flooding by absorbing and storing water.
  8. Soil conservation. Trees and forests can help to prevent soil erosion, which can help to maintain soil fertility and protect against desertification.
  9. Reforestation. Planting new trees in areas where forests have been removed can help to offset emissions. This can provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, water regulation, and biodiversity conservation.
  10. Enhancing the ecological recycling process. Responsible land use and forestry enhance the ecological recycling of nutrients, like carbon and nitrogen, vital for maintaining ecosystem health and improving air and water quality.
  11. Improving economic and social conditions. Sustainable forestry and land management practices stimulate economic growth through green jobs and enhance social well-being by providing recreational spaces and community empowerment.

What can ordinary people do to impact land-use change and forestry positively?

You can take several actions to make a positive impact.

  1. Reduce consumption of products linked to deforestation. Avoid products such as palm oil, beef, soy, and wood products that are commonly linked to deforestation.
  2. Support sustainable agriculture and forestry. Look for products that are certified by organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Rainforest Alliance, which promote sustainable land-use practices.
  3. Plant trees. Planting trees can create emission savings and provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, water regulation, and biodiversity conservation. You can also support reforestation projects or organisations that work to protect and restore forests.
  4. Support conservation and protected areas critical for biodiversity protection and carbon sequestration.
  5. Use your voice to advocate for sustainable land-use policies. Contact your representatives and urge them to support policies that promote sustainable land-use practices and protect forests. You can also donate to or volunteer for organisations working on conservation and sustainable land-use projects.
  6. Educate yourself and others. Learn more about the issues surrounding land-use change and forestry and share your knowledge with others to raise awareness and inspire action.

It’s important to note that more than individual actions alone will be required to address the complex issues surrounding land-use change and forestry. Still, they can positively impact when combined with larger-scale efforts and policy changes.

Summary. Balancing the trade-offs to ensure sustainable growth

Imagine a world where our agricultural and urban expansion is done in harmony with nature. We can not only halt emissions but also actively remove carbon from the atmosphere and protect the diversity of life on Earth.

Land-use change and forestry can positively and negatively impact the environment. Deforestation and other forms of unsound land use can lead to carbon emissions, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and degradation of soil health. However, sustainable land-use practices such as agroforestry, selective logging, conservation of natural forests, and reforestation can mitigate climate change. 

It’s crucial to balance these benefits and drawbacks and implement sustainable land-use practices and policies that protect the environment and human well-being. We can mitigate the adverse effects of land-use change by ensuring sustainable land use. 

This will ensure a greener and more livable planet for future generations.

Frequently asked questions

Deforestation is converting forested to non-forested areas through human activities such as logging, agriculture, and urbanisation. Deforestation can lead to the loss of carbon sinks and biodiversity and contribute to climate change through the release of carbon stored in trees and soil.

Land use changes affect the environment, economics, and cultures. It impacts employment prospects, food output, and real estate values. Socially, it modifies cultural norms, community structures, and resource availability. It affects ecosystems, biodiversity, and environmental resources, including soil and water quality.

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Author

Rob Boyle
Rob built Emission Index to collect and share data, trends and opportunities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and expedite the energy transition.

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