A guest blog by Dr Jonathan Bell, Head of Land and Sea Policy at RSPB NI. 

A new study led by the RSPB has examined how different land use scenarios can contribute to achieving the NI Executive’s requirement to achieve ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The study revealed how a more strategic approach to land-use decision making must be taken, to help meet the net zero targets, whilst also producing food and timber, and protecting wildlife.

The UK wide paper, published by the journal One Earth, sets out a range of options for reducing emissions, including ‘Nature-based Solutions’ such as restoring degraded peatland habitat, creation of new habitat such as woodland and saltmarsh, and implementation of low carbon farming. The impacts of this type of land use change were then assessed, looking at greenhouse gas emissions, birds, and food, timber and bioenergy crop production up to the year 2050. 

The research demonstrates that the more Nature-based Solutions employed, the greater the emissions reduction. Nature-based Solutions, such as peatland restoration and woodland creation, have an important and vital role to play in reaching net zero. 

The research also explored the impacts of change and highlighted that while biodiversity is likely to benefit in general from the expanded use of Nature-based Solutions, some specific groups of birds – farmland birds in particular – are likely to suffer, highlighting the importance of agri-environment schemes in helping to improve the quality of the remaining farmland habitat.

In Northern Ireland, how land is used and managed has a critical role to play in reaching net zero. Our land is a net carbon emitter. We need to reduce the emissions from things such as degraded peatlands and increase carbon storage in woodlands and healthy peatlands. But this will involve big changes in the way we manage land, and these changes will need to be approached carefully and strategically by government.  This study shows how considerations around future land use are complex and there are multiple trade-off and benefits. It is vital that landowners are supported to deliver more sustainable land management that delivers a better balance between food production, carbon sequestration and nature restoration.

As a result of the findings, RSPB NI is urging government to adopt a more strategic approach to future land use management, by developing a land use strategy for Northern Ireland.  There have been repeated calls for a land use strategy in Northern Ireland, with the Land Matters Task Force first calling for such a strategy as far back as 2015.  Political parties and the Minister at the time supported the call and the Minister instructed officials within the Department of the Environment (as it was at the time) to begin developing a strategy.  However, the momentum was lost within the newly formed Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).  The recent review of agri-food in Northern Ireland has reiterated calls for such a strategy. 

This land use scenarios project shows the level of detail and complexity involved in considering future land use changes required to meet multiple societal challenges, such as tackling climate change, providing space for nature and continuing food production. We are demanding more and more and more from our finite land resource without a strategic underpinning to land use management approaches.  A strategic approach would help minimise negative unintended consequences of land use change while maximising positive outcomes for nature and climate.

There is broad support on the need for a Land Use Strategy for Northern Ireland from both interested stakeholders and political parties, as highlighted by this report. You can find out more information here.