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Operationalising telecouplings for solving sustainability challenges related to land use

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - COUPLED (Operationalising telecouplings for solving sustainability challenges related to land use)

Reporting period: 2018-01-01 to 2019-12-31

Land use is central to many of the largest sustainability challenges of today, including global food security, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity conservation. Finding pathways for sustainable land use is challenging because of the complex processes of globalization that tie distant places together. The products we consume are often directly or indirectly connected to far away land-use changes such as deforestation in the tropics. These links are embedded in a net of flows of products and raw materials, but also of people, information, discourses, policies, and capital. These flows are difficult to untie and lead in many places to abrupt and unexpected land-use changes.
Scholars in the field of land system science have started analyzing such global connections through the concept of telecoupling. COUPLED puts the approach of telecoupling into action for contributing to a better understanding of processes and actors that influence land use in an increasingly interconnected world. Specifically, COUPLED strives to understand where and how systematic changes in land use occur, how these changes affect societies and the environment, and how to identify governance tools to steer telecoupled systems onto desired pathways.
We evaluated methods to assess telecouplings by reviewing concepts to capture and quantify flows that link land systems across large distances, including feedbacks and unexpected couplings. This was complemented by exploring different concepts of spatial and temporal distance in telecouplings. Methods to assess the impacts and indirect land-use change caused by telecoupled agricultural supply chains have been systematically reviewed, leading to recommendations on how to better assess environmental impacts in the future. Conservation flows related to foreign aid in the study area of the South American soy and cattle deforestation frontiers were categorized by objectives, perceived threats, and proposed interventions and resulted in an improved database of international aid for conservation in the study area. The existing database of embodied Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (eHANPP) was extended and a new eHANPP database for all land-based products was produced to better measure the global land footprint of agricultural trade. Coffee companies’ strategies to address sustainability were analyzed to identify company characteristics that affect the decision to promote sustainable land use through their supply chains. Also, the effectiveness of public policy suggestions to address deforestation was evaluated. The land footprint of six USA diets for the year 2017 has been captured. To assess the impact by corporate zero-deforestation commitments, a wide range of satellite-derived data sets on forest areas, carbon stocks and high conservation value indicators were linked to various socio-economic or ecological factors likely to affect deforestation outcomes.
The production of maize and the associated land-use changes and environmental impacts in Thailand were mapped to understand the current governance and production systems, and their relations to European poultry production. A comprehensive literature review of existing theories of (environmental) justice, global value chain analysis, political ecology of food systems and social movements was conducted and categorized with various telecoupled flows in governance and actor coalitions. A systematic review of telecoupling visualizations was conducted, resulting in descriptive statistics on visualization approaches as well as the development of a typology of telecoupling visualizations. A concept and methodology to analyze stickiness in commodity supply chains were developed and applied to the Brazilian Cerrado’s Matopiba soy and cattle frontier.
Telecouplings between mining and land change in Africa has been explored by extensive fieldwork conducted in the small-scale gold mining sector in Tanzania. A systematic review on mapping environmental governance in complex global interconnections was conducted; more specifically the emerging environmental governance architecture of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative was analyzed, and several environmental governance challenges identified. Stakeholder interviews in the Argentinian development/forest section provided data to investigate how national forest management is influenced by multi-level governance. A comprehensive literature review to explore traceability and transparency in palm oil supply chains was conducted to analyze how their possible synergies can help companies move towards sustainability transformations. A survey and stakeholder interviews, as well as focus group discussions from fieldwork in Laotian forest-dependent villages, provide insight into international forest conservation discourses and their relationship to local household-decisions on land-use and livelihood.
This empirical work has contributed to better establish causality across scales and distances helping determine environmental, social, economic or political impacts caused by telecoupling, as well as identify potential leverage points for policy and governance intervention.
COUPLED made progress beyond the state of the art by:
- consistently integrating concepts and tools of place-based and flow/network-based methods and research to address sustainability challenges related to land use
- analyzing various types of distances, including social, institutional, economic, and geographic distance to identify telecoupled land systems
- assessing a wide variety of flows and connectedness, including materials, information, capital, organisms, and energy
- identifying and analyzing potential spill-over systems and displacement to allow for a more holistic understanding of the impact of land-use policies

Expected results until the end of the project are to:
- 15 individual Ph.D. theses submitted
- develop a typology of telecouplings by identifying archetypical combinations of actors and flows
- create a Telecouplings Toolbox including portfolios of data, methods, and tools to assess and model telecoupling
- develop a priority list of indicators, tools, and intervention strategies from the perspective of different actors (e.g. private companies, NGOs, government bodies) and different sectors (e.g. agriculture, forestry, conservation) aiding them in measuring progress towards more sustainable outcomes

Expected impacts are to:
- innovate through inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration combining theoretical grounding and applied research
- address key gaps in the operationalization of the telecouplings framework, specifically in terms of linking place-based and flow-based research
- substantially broaden the empirical basis for telecouplings research and test the applicability of the concept for addressing real-world sustainability challenges in the private and public/policy sectors
- develop and evaluate, together with companies, NGOs, and government institutions, practical approaches and tools to mitigate sustainability problems
- provide the scientific background to appropriately design, implement, and govern telecoupled land systems, and develop tools for private and public sectors to implement their sustainability objectives