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Theme 1: Natural Assets


Scotland’s ecological footprint has been calculated to be 5.4 ha capita-1, more than twice the 2.2 ha capita-1 if all the available land in the world was shared out equally. A recent analysis of the ‘Scottish doughnut’ concluded that the country’s impact on key planetary processes was much beyond that justified by its population, specifically in relation to GHG emissions, nitrogen and phosphorus flows in the landscape and ocean, contribution to ozone depletion, and air pollution. Moreover, large inequalities in wealth distribution also meant that several social indicators, such as unemployment, fuel poverty, and food unaffordability, scored low, despite average wealth being relatively high. There is, therefore, an urgent need to evaluate how changes in natural assets and ecosystem functioning impact on economic stability. The challenge is to ensure that Scotland continues to be a prosperous country, but with more equitable distribution of this prosperity, and that its natural assets are enhanced rather than degraded.

UN-SDGsThe UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), published in September 2015, provide a framework for addressing this challenge. Of particular relevance to the Natural Assets Theme are:

  • SDG6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • SDG13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • SDG15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Research Questions

To achieve this we will address the following research questions:

  • RQ1 How do Scotland’s natural assets function, how healthy are they, what are their trends, and what are ‘safe’ limits to their sustainable use?
  • RQ2 How resilient are Scotland’s natural assets to climate change and other risks (invasive non-native species (INNS), pollution, etc.), and what are the key interventions to make them more resilient or to protect them from further harm?
  • RQ3 What are the key ecosystem benefits we derive from Scotland’s natural assets, how are they distributed, how are they related to one another, are our natural assets declining as socio-economic capital increases, and how do we manage trade-offs between them?
  • RQ4 How can we improve the management of our natural assets to support sustainable land-based industries and vibrant communities, how can we improve existing instruments, and what other instruments could be applied to support social and economic entitlements and a just distribution of outcomes?

Specifically, we will undertake work to understand better the processes contributing to the resilience of our soils, waters and biodiversity, which will contribute to the development of a register of natural assets. This will provide the basis for detailed analysis of (a) how individual natural assets work together to create overall ecosystem resilience, (b) trends in these natural assets and whether safe boundaries are being approached, and (c) the trade-offs and synergies that may occur under different management options seeking to enhance ecosystem resilience. Best management practices will be tested in specific case studies that will demonstrate to stakeholders how our vision of sustainability may be achieved. Throughout the process, our research will provide evidence for policy development aiming at better stewardship of our natural assets.


The research in the Natural Assets Theme is organised into four work-packages:

Project Information
Project Type: 
Active Project
SEFARI – Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research InstitutesSEFARI is the collective of six Scottish world-leading Research Institutes working across the spectrum of environment, land, food, agriculture and communities – all topics which affect how we live our lives, in Scotland and beyond.


Areas of Interest

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.