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Sustainability, efficiency, equity and resilience of land and water use for global food and energy security: synergies and fundamental trade-offs

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EARTH@LTERNATIVES (Sustainability, efficiency, equity and resilience of land and water use for global food and energy security: synergies and fundamental trade-offs)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2020-11-30

Land and water are scarce resource, appropriated by humanity to provide for, among others, food and energy. Appropriation of scarce resources goes along with objectives to improve on the environmental sustainability, economic efficiency and equity of the resource use, and of the resilience of the land and water use systems. Policies aiming at each of these four development principles will go along with synergies or necessary trade-offs in one or more of the other principles, or at other locations. The main challenge is, to address all development principles simultaneously.

The SDGs detail goals, specific targets and underlying indicators that should measure sustainability and guide policies. Not all SDGs are satisfactorily conceived and operationalized, and relations between the SDGs are still meagerly understood. Policies aiming to near targets for a specific SDG may show synergies or trade-offs with other SDG targets.

The objective of the Earth@lternatives programme is to understand environmental sustainability, resource use efficiency, social equity and social-ecological resilience of land and water use for food and energy supply worldwide, considering production, consumption and trade patterns, and gain insight in the possible synergies and inevitable trade-offs between sustainability, efficiency, equity and resilience. Goal is to develop methods of assessing water and land footprints of food and energy production and consumption and to analyze trade-offs and feedbacks for historic and possible future developments.
The EarthAlternatives project involved 3 lines of activities: construction of a high spatiotemporal resolution dataset of water and land footprints of crops, investigations into options to reduce environmental pressures, analyses of synergies and trade-offs in policies considering cultural perspectives.

A major effort initiated in the project period and currently under completion is the construction of a high spatiotemporal resolution dataset of water and land footprints of crops. Spatiotemporal data on cropping patterns, irrigation, soils and climate and statistical data on crop production were assimilated involving FAO’s AquaCrop OS for modelling water-stressed crop yields. This modelling activity contributes to international global crop model intercomparisons. The resulting dataset will update the very heavily cited crop water footprint data of Mekonnen and Hoekstra.

Investigations into options to reduce environmental pressures involve the consideration of additional environmental pressures along supply and impact chains, and a variety of options. Options studied range from benchmarking production, to shifting dietary patterns, improving agricultural technologies, and reallocating crop production based on suitability. The investigations based on earlier water footprint estimates as well as earlier updates of water footprints using AquaCrop modelling, extensions of environmental pressures from water footprints to environmental footprint families, scenario study and optimization methods. Resulting papers appeared in high-ranked journals.

Analyses of trade-offs and synergies in policies considering cultural perspectives focused on the multitude of goals in environmental and water policies. Tradeoffs between caps on human activities and violation of environmental thresholds were studied in the context of large current knowledge uncertainties. Synergies of efficiency improvements in agricultural production and environmental sustainability were assessed. Approaches to consider resilience aspects, next to efficiency, environmental sustainability and equity were scoped. The level of achievement of SDG-goals was studied in relation to different cultural traits in countries, highlighting the relevance of cultural perspectives in policy analysis. Here, again, resulting papers appeared in high-ranked journals.
The research group succeeded to make the methodological jump to base crop water footprints on grid-specific application of FAO’s AquaCrop model at the global extent over a 50 year period. This constitutes a significant improvement over earlier global water footprint assessments using the CropWat model. The group is contributing results of the new ACEA (AquaCrop-EarthAlternatives) model to international global crop modelling intercomparison exercises (Jaegermeyer et al, 2021). Hogeboom er al (2020b) use the upgraded crop simulation as a basis for water productivity benchmarks.
As a new approach to interpret footprint assessments for policy making, benchmarking assessments are further developed, to put water footprints resulting from local practices in the context of general production efficiencies (with respect to water) under similar environmental conditions (Mekonnen et al., 2020). Accounting methods were enriched to separate out sustainable and unsustainable shares of environmental pressures (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2020).
Where both production- and consumption-based perspectives are common, a joint comparative consideration sheds often unconventional light on local water scarcity problems and solution strategies (Karandish et al, 2021).
Supply-chain approaches in water footprint accounting is expanded using multi-regional environmentally-extended input-output modelling. In particular for non-food commodities this enriches previous water footprint research. Supply-chain formulations from MRIO are useful in creating scenarios or assessing the internal consistency of scenarios on aspects of trade and economic structure. Current results include contributions to address methodological challenges in describing (durable) capital assets in accounting of environmental pressures (Ye et al., 2021a), and separation of virtual water flows embedded in trade of primary, intermediate and final consumption commodities (Ye et al., 2021b).
Methods to identify cultural or contextual aspects in SDG achievement were pursued (Zheng et al, 2021; Su et al., 2021), as they provide insights essential for upcoming scenario development in policy studies. Zheng et al (2021) show a large majority of SDG targets and a significant share of variations in SDG achievement to be linked to cultural traits. Those links are strikingly divergent across cultural traits and indicators, emphasizing the relevance of nuanced consideration of cultural aspects in research and policy design on SDG challenges. Su et al (2021) compare approaches of research into SDG linkages. Text analyses of countries’ self-studies, literature study on general linkages and correlation analyses at country resolution are analyzed with global coverage. Specific attention is given to identification of linkages as synergies and trade-offs, and to contextual factors, focusing on the water and land goals in SDG 2 and SDG 6.
Singling out effects of crop reallocation between countries, water scarcity reductions the most water-scarce countries were studied while keeping within constraints of current land and water use and only allowing for marginal changes (Chouchane et al, 2020a). An innovative mathematical optimization approach was implemented where differences between countries both in land and water productivities and in availability of land and water resource drive re-allocations, at global level and country resolution. The potential is found be very significant, with only moderate changes in, mostly, rainfed production needed to avoid severe water scarcity at national levels in the world.
In memoriam Arjen Hoekstra