‘We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate what steps we are taking to contribute towards solving the climate crisis that can serve as examples to the rest of the world.’
The climate crisis is increasingly hitting the political headlines. The current emissions trajectory puts Earth on a catastrophic 3°C warming within the lifetime of today’s schoolchildren. Ecosystem collapse, food insecurity and the breakdown of civil society are likely outcomes – albeit, as we show later, public authorities, including the Scottish Government, are taking measures to promote a more sustainable future in the widest sense.
In this scenario – as the IPCC climate change report highlights – there is a risk of land becoming a net source of greenhouse gas as opposed to a current sink. Hence land and how it is managed is essential to help mitigate climate change whilst maintaining ecosystem health and thus our quality of life. Ecosystems play a substantial role in enabling mitigation through carbon sequestration inter alia; maintaining their health depends upon process of land management/stewardship.
Who owns the land largely determines how it is used.. Can Scotland – where the topic of land ownership is emotive and political – lead the way in demonstrating how land reform can mitigate the risks and enable us to adapt to a changing climate? Scotland, uniquely, has an ownership pattern based on large-scale landed ‘estates’, considered to be the most concentrated pattern of private ownership in Europe: what does this imply for handling the climate emergency at home?
Here Annie McKee and Mike Rivington of the James Hutton Institute outline the challenges – potential unintended consequences of land reform – and propose three key policy drivers for land reform that meets Scotland’s social and environmental needs.
Where are we in terms of land reform in Scotland?
In Scotland, land reform has been a feature of political debate since the mid-1990s; it is driven by concerns regarding diversity, transparency, and accountability in landownership. A flagship of the devolved Scottish Parliament was the controversial Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003: a pioneering and complex governance innovation that sought to overcome inequality in land ownership and land governance.
This legislation introduced a right of responsible access for the Scottish public, the community right-to-buy (i.e. a pre-emption for rural communities to buy land and buildings with government support when these are placed on the market), and the absolute right-to-buy for crofting communities. The latest assessment puts 562,230 acres of land in community ownership. In 2015, the community right-to-buy was extended to urban communities and developed to overcome issues of ‘abandoned and neglected’ land.
In 2016, the Scottish Government passed new legislation underpinned by principles of fairness and social justice. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 (LRSA) has introduced powers of compulsory land sale to communities, if transfer of ownership is assessed as furthering the achievement of sustainable development in relation to land, and where maintaining the status quo is considered to be ‘harmful’ to the local community and public interest. The power of private landowners is further challenged in this latest legislation through increasing rights granted to tenant farmers, requirements for community engagement in land management decision-making, and the establishment of a Scottish Land Commission, amongst other measures.
This policy landscape is definitive in asserting that land ownership underpins land use decision-making. If Scotland wishes to have a different pattern of land ownership, what does this mean for climate change mitigation, coping with impacts and adaptation actions?
Climate change and land reform are cross-cutting policy issues critical to the Scottish Government’s National Outcomes that relate to equality and those underpinned by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The following questions thus arise:
- How do climate change impacts, mitigation, and adaptation intersect with the new institutions of property ownership post-land reform?
- What does a climate-adapted Scotland look like in respect of land ownership?
In considering how these two key issues of Scottish social and environmental justice interlink and interact, we propose three key land reform policy drivers that may have consequences for climate change impacts, mitigation effort and adaptation action at the Scottish scale (and beyond).
Firstly, it has been argued that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 has contributed to a decline in availability of new and long-term agricultural leases, due in part to the extended powers of security of tenure to some tenants, and a perception amongst the landowning community that ongoing land reforms will result in a tenant farmer ‘absolute right-to-buy’. There is a drive to support alternative models of land access, for example, establishing joint ventures between new entrants and existing farmers, including contracting and share-farming. Nonetheless, many new farmers or those wishing to expand their businesses appear restricted to scarce and relatively short-term land leases (i.e. between 5-10 years).
The consequences of this unintended outcome of the land reform process are concerning from an environmental perspective – it is well established that tenure insecurity can contribute to short-termism in land management. This matters in climate change mitigation, as carbon sequestration by trees and soils requires long-term strategy. Without security of tenure over longer time-scales, tenants are inhibited in planning and investing in environmental goods such as soil and water health, or measures that could contribute to carbon sequestration, such as planting trees on marginal land, or protecting peatlands. (The Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement produced by the LRSA 2016, and the Principles for Sustainable Land Use included in the Scottish Government’s Land Use Strategy may support voluntary actions for long-term land management.)
With respect to soil carbon sequestration, there is good potential to both store carbon and improve fertility. However, the time-scales to achieve a realisable potential sequestration rate through alternative management practices may be greater than the lease agreement period. This prompts a further question: how can legal measures be adapted and a culture of confidence in land leasing be fostered in Scotland to ensure long-term climate-friendly land management practices?
A need for shared visions
Secondly, the goal of the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda is to ensure a more equitable system of land ownership and land management. This includes initiatives and policy tools to reduce the concentrated scale of ownership in private hands, and to increase diversity of land ownership. A likely outcome of this trajectory is a pattern of land ownership that is more fragmented, with a range of interests implementing land use decisions, including local community views. An uncertainty arising from this social goal is the coherence of land governance and the cooperation of landowner visions (and resulting land management) necessary to ensure landscape-scale (and beyond) initiatives that underpin public environmental goods such as climate change mitigation.
Evidence from conservation deer management processes illustrate the need for shared visions by those who hold power in land use decision-making. Across Europe, land fragmentation has led to areas of land abandonment and natural regeneration. In Scotland, a counter-trend of conservation management, both by the charitable and private sectors (e.g. the largest private landowner, Wildland Ltd), could be undermined by a drive for smaller landholdings.
Research shows that Scotland’s land use potential – both for production and climate change mitigation – will change with rising temperatures and new levels of climate variability and extreme events. From climate model projections and assessment tools (for example land capability mapping, agrometeorological indicators, and spatially-applied crop simulation modelling) we can see this will vary due to different soil types and rainfall distribution responses. This prompts questions: how will a more diverse and fragmented pattern of landownership in Scotland, encompassing a diversity of land use visions and management strategies, interact with changing land capability under climate change?
Thirdly, land reform in Scotland appears to rely on the decisions and motivations of largely voluntary community bodies, both in rural and urban areas. A recent report published by the Scottish Land Commission described the experiences of these community groups in acquiring land and other assets through the legal and financial means available to them. It highlighted the challenging process of acquiring land and other assets for the benefit of a local community.
Often the motivation for a community to seek ownership is the apparent under-utilisation of an asset by the current landowner, stifling potential and sustainable community development. To gain a Scottish Land Fund grant, for example, the community must demonstrate a competent and realistic business plan for the asset that it wishes to own and manage. A challenge arises where socio-economic drivers and components of a business plan designed by a local community come into conflict with environmental drivers and those in the wider public interest.
Developments in renewable energy or biofuels may be a critical (and growing) example. How can local communities be supported to make land use decisions with an awareness of the global impact and intergenerational consequences? Is the community scale appropriate when land redistribution and land use are critical to climate change adaptation and mitigation? What is the optimum balance of local and national governance?
Complexity and change
The political climate is changing. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration of climate emergency in April this year was quickly followed by the UK Parliament. The Scottish Government’s highly ambitious Climate Change Act (2009) will be made more ambitious still through amendments to the Climate Change Bill (first proposed in 2018) now being strengthened to meet the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, aiming to achieve net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045. Furthermore, the process of responding to climate change threats (and wider sustainability issues) by the Scottish Government has led to the creation of the Just Transition Commission that will advise on a carbon-neutral economy that is fair for all.
We need to be clear about what we want from the land, how we find and reward synergies, and how to ensure greater public input to land management and land use decision-making. The Scottish Government’s Guidance for Engaging Communities in Decisions Relating to Land is a critical tool in this process.
Crucially, the climate emergency, as well as biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, is an opportunity to test methods designed to support deliberative democracy, informed by robust scientific evidence, to support the reconciliation of numerous and difficult trade-offs.
Glasgow will host the next major UN climate change summit in November 2020. With the world’s focus on Scotland, we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate what steps we are taking to contribute towards solving the climate crisis that can serve as examples to the rest of the world.