Land use conflicts necessitate integrated policy

Demand for land in Europe is high. Food and biomass production, housing, infrastructure and recreation all compete for space, with impacts on our climate, biodiversity and ecosystem services. In a recent assessment, the European Environment Agency (EEA) analysed land use change in Europe, concluding that we need an integrated policy approach based on reliable data to balance sectoral demands and manage land sustainably.

The land use assessment published as a part of the EEA's flagship report ‘The European environment – state and outlook 2010’ (SOER 2010) covers 36 European countries and a total area of 5.42 million km2.

It says that the spread of urban areas and transport infrastructure has been accelerating. Artificial land cover increased by 3.4 % in Europe in the period 2000–2006, by far the largest proportional increase in all land use categories.

Contrastingly, farmland is decreasing in terms of area but is often managed more intensively, partly due to growing demand for bio-energy crops. Wetlands and biodiversity-rich natural and semi-natural areas also continue to decline, although at a slower rate than observed in the period 1990–2000.

Land use changes in Europe have significant environmental implications, including polluting soil and water, and releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Landscape fragmentation and habitat destruction exert strong pressures on biodiversity.

Decisions about land use involve trade-offs between diverse sectoral interests, including industry, transport, mining, agriculture and forestry. Managing these trade-offs in a way that maximises society’s wellbeing — both today and in the years ahead — requires an integrated policy approach incorporating environmental considerations.

Of course, designing and implementing an integrated policy approach is impossible without accurate information, including accessible data on land cover and analysis of land use changes. The EEA provides a range of tools for this purpose.