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Seeds of change: Establishing frameworks for understanding global environmental changes

This article belongs to Ambio's 50th Anniversary Collection. Theme: Agricultural land use

Agriculture is the single most significant driver of land use change across the globe. Approximately half of the world’s habitable land area has been converted to agricultural production (Ellis et al. 2010), which is a significant cause of biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. The global community has recognised the urgency by which we must reverse biodiversity loss and halt greenhouse gas emissions. While international will to reverse biodiversity loss and land degradation exists, as evidenced by the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and subsequent Aichi Biodiversity targets agreed in 2010, action to do so has failed. The most recent UN Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 reportFootnote 1 found that despite progress in some areas, natural habitats have continued to disappear, vast numbers of species remain threatened by extinction from human activities, and €314 billion of environmentally damaging government subsidies have not been eliminated. Government action and investment to support commitments to reverse land degradation and support biodiversity must be implemented to realize the vision agreed by world governments for 2050, to live in harmony with nature.

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016 has as its central aim to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 °C. This has been equated to achieving zero net emissions by 2050. This represents a significant shift compared to the rather open-ended and bland target from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 to reduce the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (Article 2). The long-standing debates then were between negotiators about the role that industrialised countries should play compared to those countries still developing their economies in the lead up to and after the Kyoto Protocol. However, reaching net zero emissions by 2050 will require significant changes in the business as usual scenario.

Achieving both the Paris Agreement and the Aichi Biodiversity targets will require a transformation of the way we currently use land and produce food. It will not be possible to reach either target without addressing land use and agricultural production. Nature-friendly approaches to farming, such as agroecology, create possibilities of creating multi-functional landscapes which can provide food, land for biodiversity, AND carbon sequestration through both the soil and agroforestry.

The 1990s saw global leaders come together to agree the significance of climate change and biodiversity loss and this is the backdrop for the publication of the three articles that make up this anniversary collection: (Sombroek et al. 1993; Turner et al. 1994; Brussaard et al. 1997). While the scientific community was galvanised behind these global challenges, as De Bremond (2021) outlines in her Perspective, it was still early days in understanding the critical role that agricultural land use changes had to play. Moore’s Perspective (2021), recognises the role these articles played in establishing important frameworks for understanding global dynamics of land use changes. The authors themselves have also reflected on the impact of their earlier publications and the challenges of the time (Brussaard 2021; Nachtergaele 2021; and Turner et al. 2021).

The Ambio article by Turner et al. (1994) called for better “global-level data on land use and land-cover change…(and)…better understanding of the underlying driving forces for these changes.” (p. 91). It recognised the challenge of creating a generalised global model based on accumulated place-based case study data; indeed in the 25 years since publication, this objective has eluded the land system science research community, illustrating the complexity of social-ecological systems and the challenges that remain for achieving sustainable outcomes. In seeking to merge the social drivers with ecological system feedbacks to better understand and predict land use and land cover changes based on different policy and other social parameters, land system science gets to the core of Ambio’s themes.

The Ambio article by Brussard et al. in 1997 was another example of the foreshadowing of years of work within a growing network of scientists, this time focused on soil biodiversity, whose aim was to better understand environmental changes and how these impact people. Like the Ambio article by Turner and colleagues, it highlighted the gaps in knowledge within the research community and was agenda-setting, culminating in a rigorous synthesis by Wall (2004) of the role of biodiversity both within and across soils and sediments in providing ecosystem services seven years later.

This brings us to the final article of this Ambio anniversary collection by Sombroek et al. (1993), which focused on another component of the soil system critical in our efforts today to reach zero carbon emission targets: carbon sequestration. Sombroek and co-authors brought attention to the need for understanding the human–environment interactions as they relate to land use practices and the possibility of carbon storage in below-ground biomass. All of the chosen articles advocated for a framework to understand the global environmental changes precipitated by human actions and the impacts of these changes on human population. They have culminated in research programmes pivotal for providing the building blocks on which our current understanding of the role that agricultural land use plays in predicating climate change and biodiversity loss. Results from these research programmes support our understanding for effecting positive change to achieve international targets for biodiversity and net zero greenhouse gas emissions.



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Correspondence to Angelina Sanderson Bellamy.

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Sanderson Bellamy, A. Seeds of change: Establishing frameworks for understanding global environmental changes. Ambio 50, 1281–1285 (2021).

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