By Dr Sheila George, Food and Environment Policy Manager, WWF Scotland

A NEW report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted the key role that land use and management will play in the global response to the climate emergency. This is a big deal, as the way we currently use land both contributes to climate change and affects the ability of nature and land-based businesses to respond to its impacts.

The Special Report on Climate Change and Land explores the relationship between climate, people and land in a warming world, making clear the synergies and trade-offs in our land use decisions. This is as relevant in Scotland as it is globally – an integrated approach to land use and management will be essential to meeting our net zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2045, securing a climate safe future, while supporting food security and nature recovery.

The good news is Scotland has a huge advantage. We already have the policy tools and natural resources to meet the challenge – now we just need to use them.

The 2009 Climate Change Act introduced the requirement to produce a land use strategy for Scotland, recognising even then the key role that land can play in climate mitigation and adaptation. Published in 2011 and refreshed in 2016, Scotland’s Land Use Strategy was world-leading at the time. However, it proved difficult to translate into change on the ground without adequate resourcing or a regional and local focus on delivery. Now, as we look to reach net zero emissions by 2045, it’s vital that we pick up where this work left off, to both minimise the contribution our land makes to climate change and maximise its potential to mitigate the worst climate impacts.

Nature-based climate solutions are integral to this and again Scotland has an opportunity to lead the way. Scotland contains 60 per cent of the UK’s peatlands and five per cent of the global blanket bog resource is found in the Flow Country. We have ambitious tree-planting targets, which were surpassed in 2019. Our peatlands, saltmarsh, woodlands and grasslands, when well looked after, act as huge carbon stores, providing clean water and natural defences against flooding, alongside habitat for wildlife while providing rural jobs.

But these habitats are in trouble. More than 80 per cent of Scotland’s peatlands have been damaged by drainage, burning and inappropriate tree planting causing them to release centuries worth of carbon that was once safely locked away. Many of our saltmarshes and wet grasslands have been drained and converted for agriculture and less than half of our native woodlands are in good condition. This impacts the natural ability of the land to capture and store carbon and to buffer against the impacts of extreme weather.

Land use and land management have contributed to this damage but land-based businesses also feel the impacts. The extreme weather of 2017-2018 alone cost Scottish farmers an estimated £160 million, as wet conditions and waterlogged soils were followed by the Beast from the East and then prolonged drought in the summer.

The Scottish Government has shown clear climate leadership this year, declaring a climate emergency and amending legislation to commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. It’s time to turn those words into action.

We need to work with the land, protecting and restoring nature, while building resilience. The Land Use Strategy could help us do that by identifying priorities, balancing the often competing demands on our land for nature recovery, renewable energy, food production, and woodland expansion, to maximise opportunities and minimise trade-offs. It could also help us target investment to support delivery of climate action through integrated, sustainable land use.

All this will play a crucial part in helping us reach net zero by 2045, enabling our land use to work in in harmony with nature.