IP to deliver impact assessment tool for land use policies in European regions
If the authorities in the Slovenian Alps made a concerted effort to attract more tourists to the region, what effects would such a move have on the nearby Austrian Alps, not only in terms of tourism, but also on the region's economy, agricultural sector and rural population? To answer such a question with any degree of accuracy would require detailed data from a number of different sectors in both regions, as well as an understanding of the complex interactions that will produce the primary and secondary impacts to be assessed. This is exactly the challenge facing participants in a new EU funded Integrated Project (IP) that aims to provide regional policy makers in Europe with a tool to assess the impact on sustainability of various land use policies. The SENSOR IP, funded under the 'global change and ecosystems' sub section of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), brings together 33 partners from 15 countries under the coordination of the Leibniz Association's centre for agricultural land use and landscape research. CORDIS News spoke to the centre's Katharina Helming, coordinator of the SENSOR project, to find out more about the challenge facing the consortium. 'The first task is to translate policies such as the common agricultural policy [CAP], the water framework directive and rural policies into land use scenarios, which we will do using a series of macroeconomic models, as well as sector specific models for agriculture, tourism, forestry, natural protection and transport energy,' explains Dr Helming. However, this process of data collection and model analysis is only one side of the story - SENSOR partners will also go into European regions directly to gather the input of stakeholders on how land use policies affect sustainability. 'The key is the combination of models and data on the one side, and stakeholder consultation on the other,' said Dr Helming, ensuring that the project has both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Following the data collection process, the team will then develop a sustainability impact assessment tool (SIAT) that regional authorities will be able to apply to planned policies, as well as a data management system that will help to keep the models on which the SIAT is based fully updated. For more complex assessments the input of experts may be necessary, but policy makers should be able to use the system independently to address more basic questions. One major element of the project is a specific focus on the newer Member States, where the current domination of agricultural and rural land use is expected to undergo considerable change. 'The centre of gravity of the consortium is further east than most, with many partners from the new Member States,' says Dr Helming. 'This is important if we are to consider the most pressing challenges, rather than the problems of the happy few.' When asked to explain the differences between the SENSOR project and another recently launched EU environmental impact assessment initiative, SEAMLESS, Dr Helming explains: 'SEAMLESS is a sister project, and where it focuses only on agriculture, SENSOR covers five sectors. Also, we are looking solely at the regional scale, whereas SEAMLESS will also deal with local as well as global issues.' One of the main challenges that the partners face is in unravelling and characterising the interrelations between the various sectoral issues that they wish to address. 'This calls for multidisciplinary interaction within the project, which is not always easy,' admits Dr Helming. The success of the overall project will rely on close interaction with the end users, in this case the policy makers that will use the impact assessment tool. The team hopes to have a prototype developed after 18 months, with a final product ready after the project's four year lifetime, and the feedback of users will be sought at every stage. 'Scientific success will be measured through peer review, publications and conferences et cetera, but with most participants coming from a scientific background we have a clearer idea of the scientific challenges that await us,' Dr Helming believes. One reason why Dr Helming believes that the project will be a success is the fact that it aims to assess the impact of economic and social factors on sustainability, rather than the other way around, as with most previous projects of this kind. 'It's just more realistic to approach it in this way, as the economy is normally the one driving the show,' Dr Helming concludes.