Responsible land-use is the key to a healthier planet, says climate science expert

Internationally recognised expert on global sustainability issues Professor Johan Rockström shared groundbreaking insights at the 44th annual TB Macaulay lecture held in Edinburgh on Wednesday night (18th October 2023).

Johan Rockström, Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professorin Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam, highlighted the importance of responsible land-use as one of the most vital factors to securing a stable future for the planet.

Drawing on his most recent Planetary Boundaries 3.0 research, which for the first time defined and quantified the nine major processes needed for a sustainable future for the planet, Rockström and his colleagues identified critical factors that could lead to tipping points. Speaking to an audience of around 500 people, he said that large scale land-use reform has great potential to secure the safety of the natural world due to key insights:

  • Navigating tipping points: The rate of global heating is dependent on the rate of disruption to biodiversity: “To keep global warming at or below 1.5°C, all remaining intact nature must be preserved, which means keeping 50% of terrestrial ecosystems on Earth intact”
  • The ‘safe land-use’ boundary has no capacity for expansion: “45-50% of land on Earth has been converted for agriculture, infrastructure and urban developments, which means we have reached the end of the road in expanding agriculture into intact nature.”
  • Food systems require reform: “Agriculture is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas, and is responsible for at least 25% of emissions by sector”

Drawing from modern scientific anthropological principles which identify land-use as the signifier of major global change, Professor Rockström explained: “As we enter the Anthropocene, a new stage of civilisation characterised as ‘the time during which humans have had a substantial impact on our planet’, climate change is happening at a rate we have never seen before. The last time a change of this scale occurred in humanity was the shift from the hunter-gatherer model to the land-cultivating model of the Holocene – the beginnings of farming. A difference is that the rate of change is up to 100% faster today.”

“As we enter the Anthropocene, a new stage of civilisation characterised as ‘the time during which humans have had a substantial impact on our planet’, climate change is happening at a rate we have never seen before”

Professor Johan Rockström
The 44th TB MacAulay Lecture, James Hutton, McEwan Hall, Edinburgh Pictured: Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam

Professor Rockström’s lecture was further contextualised by speaker Mathew Williams, Scotland’s Chief Scientific Advisor for Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, panelists Professor Sir Ian Boyd, President of the Royal Society of Biology and Professor of Biology at University of St Andrews and Laura Young, Hydro Nations Scholar and PhD student at the University of Abertay as well as event hosts Fran van Dijk, Chair of the Macaulay Development Trust and Professor Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of The James Hutton Institute.

Professor Rockström added: “Events like this TB Macuaulay Lecture enable information sharing and collaboration across industries and sectors, and give us encouraging evidence to suggest that a social tipping point for society to take action is already under way. This will be the most important factor to drive impactful change.”

Fran van Dijk, Chair of the Macaulay Development Trust said: “Hosting Professor Rockström has been a privilege. The work that he is doing addresses important global issues and has a significant impact on what the Macaulay Development Trust hopes to achieve in Scotland. Our continued focus is to fund excellent science and facilitate the exchange of research findings for accelerated impacts, supporting communities and improving social equity in our region.”

Professor Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of The James Hutton Institute added: “The insights provided by Johan communicated the sense of urgency that is required to spearhead actionable change by society. We need to consider our consumption, the way we use our resources and also the way we communicate the tipping point the world faces if we do not change our ways. Johan did suggest that it is not all doom and gloom. He suggested that a better world is entirely possible, but we need to acknowledge that it’s not incremental changes we need. Instead, big transformational change is essential. We know that Scotland has the skills and ambition to play a significant role in leading the actions to achieve transformation in its land use.”

More Information:

Professor Rockström delivered his lecture, “A safe and Just Future for Humanity on Earth,” on 18th October 2023 at the44th TB Macaulay Lecture, presented by The Macaulay Development Trust in partnership with The James Hutton Institute in the McEwan Hall in Edinburgh.

About The Macaulay Development Trust

The Macaulay Development Trust is a charity which supports excellent research into the sustainable use of land and natural resources, for the benefit of people, their communities and the environment which aligns with the vision and legacy of TB Macaulay. The Trust is registered as a Scottish charity (SC023988) and as such is regulated by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

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