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LUISE Report Summary

Project ID: 263522
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Austria

Final Report Summary - LUISE (An integrated socioecological approach to land-use intensity: Analyzing and mapping biophysical stocks/flows and their socioeconomic drivers)

Land-use intensity is an essential aspect of the human use of terrestrial ecosystems, decisive for feeding a growing world population, meeting surges in biofuel demand, and simultaneously protecting the world’s pristine ecosystems. However, many central aspects of land-use intensity have been largely neglected in the global change community. LUISE successfully aimed at triggering research, within and outside the research team, to overcome barriers to understanding land use intensification, by providing theoretically sound, interdisciplinary informed frameworks, new datasets, and empirical analyses of the systemic interplay of society and natural systems in shaping land system change. A major objective of LUISE was to develop a stringent, interdisciplinary conceptualization of land use intensity. This resulted in an operationalization of land-use intensity that discerns three dimensions of land use intensity – input and output intensity as well as a system level perspective (e.g. management-induced alterations in ecosystem states such as biodiversity, carbon stocks, net primary production [NPP], or loss of cultural heritage) – and provided a useful framework guiding data collation and empirical research within and beyond LUISE.
At the national and supra-national (i.e. European) level, LUISE identified archetypical patterns of intensification trajectories in empirical research spanning two centuries: increases in agricultural yields and in input-output efficiency of livestock systems at a local level were accompanied by a polarization into intensively used areas and more extensively used or abandoned agricultural land. At larger spatial scales, these trends led to a stabilization or recovery of many system level-intensity indicators, while input and output intensity increased substantially. Surprisingly, these patterns held across differences in institutional and economic systems (e.g. East vs West), and differences in natural endowment. Based on local case studies, a model based reconstruction of land-system change revealed the decisive role of planning security for individual farmers in these developments. At the global level, the human appropriation of NPP, a key system level metric of land use intensity, doubled in the 20th century, as land use expanded into many previously unused areas. At the same time, land use efficiency increased and per capita biomass flows declined. Efficiency gains in agriculture were achieved by input intensification (fertilizers, fossil energy), frequently associated with substantial ecological costs such as soil degradation or biodiversity loss, indicating massive trade-offs related to increasing output intensity. Currently, large differences in the efficiency at which inputs are turned into outputs and the impact of agriculture on energy flows in ecosystems prevail around the globe. Ensuing, massive efficiency gains could be achieved if nitrogen use were shifted from regions with very high crop yields to regions with low crop yields, potentials that have been quantified and mapped in LUISE.
LUISE contributed crucially to a better understanding of the role of land management in the Earth system, showing that land management has similar effects on climate-relevant parameters as changes in land-cover (e.g. from forests to agricultural fields). A systematic appraisal of land management along the conceptualization outlined above allowed to reveal a systematic bias in the attribution of the observed carbon sink in temperate and boreal forests. While commonly attributed to environmental change, we showed that a substantial share of the sink is caused by land-management changes in forests. LUISE also quantified and mapped, for the first time, the effect of land use on biomass turnover in terrestrial ecosystems at the global level. This under-researched parameter is key for the role of vegetation as source or sink of atmospheric carbon. By showing that land use accelerates biomass turnover by a factor two, LUISE identifies an important field for improvement, underlining the need to advance the representation of the impacts of land use and land management on various components of the Earth system.
The conceptual and empirical insights achieved in LUISE allowed to develop a novel modelling environment, i.e. a biophysical, deterministic and diagnostic model that enables the systematic and transparent assessment of (global) trade-offs between land cover change and land-use intensification. We used this model, which, among others, has a greatly improved livestock systems module, to depict the option space for future developments of the land systems under sustainability targets. We find that the option space is centrally determined by human diets, if multiple targets (food security, forest, climate and biodiversity protection) are to be met. This result received massive media attention and highlights the instrumental role of demand side measures, often overlooked at the policy level compared to the focus on (sustainable) increases of agricultural output.

Building upon these insights into patterns, processes and dynamics of global land systems, LUISE triggered research, also outside its team, aimed at improving monitoring as well as modelling capabilities in a world of daunting sustainability challenges. In this way, LUISE successfully stipulated the further development of land-use change science into an interdisciplinary land-system science that studies natural as well as socioeconomic and cultural components of the land system from a functional perspective.

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