Land-use transformation: for climate and biodiversity

Deforestation of rainforests and other forests, unsustainable soil management including massive fertilizer use, factory farming for increasing meat consumption − our use of land, soils and forests is unsustainable and accounts for around one-fifth of climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions. In Germany, 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from private consumption can be attributed to the cultivation and processing, transport and storage of food, as well as the preparation of meals and disposal of leftovers.

At the same time, according to the United Nations, one million species of flora and fauna worldwide are at risk of extinction. Here, too, humans are the main drivers of destructive land use and environmental pollution. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), more than 50 per cent of the loss of species diversity is attributable to resource overexploitation and land-use intensification. The way we use land therefore has implications for both climate protection and species diversity conservation. What is needed is land-use transformation, i.e. sustainable use of land resources, soils, forests and peatlands to maintain both climate stability and ecosystem integrity.

Large climate footprint due to meat-heavy diets

For the land-use transformation to succeed, changes are needed at all levels of our society and economy:

In our diets:

  • In order to protect the climate and preserve biodiversity, we must eat less meat and more plant-based products in the future. Simply reducing meat consumption from around 55 kilograms per year today to 15 kilograms, as recommended by the German Nutrition Society (DGE), can significantly reduce the impacts from agriculture.
  • To support this development, a tasty plant-based diet must be both available and affordable in food retail outlets, when eating out and in canteens. To this end, livestock-based foods must become more expensive relative to plant-based foods, for example by abolishing area-based subsidies for the cultivation of livestock feed crops as part of EU agricultural policy or by abolishing the environmentally harmful subsidization of livestock-based products in the form of the reduced VAT rate.
  • Organic products are healthier than conventionally produced food for both the environment and people. They contain significantly fewer harmful substances such as pesticide or drug residues, heavy metals, nitrates or traces of genetically modified organisms. They often have a more dense (micro)nutrient profile, are less processed and contain fewer additives. Producing food according to organic standards protects soils, (ground)water, air, animal welfare and the climate.
  • We should generally consume foods when they are in season, i.e. when they grow naturally, and give preference to regional products. Imported products that cause significant ecological problems in the countries of origin (for example, almonds from California) should be avoided.

In the way we use agricultural land:

  • Agriculture must take place within planetary boundaries and be ecological in nature. This is because organic agriculture is associated with significantly lower environmental impact and helps to reduce climate-damaging greenhouse gases.
  • A new social contract for agriculture requires regulatory standards as well as an alignment of subsidies with climate change mitigation and biodiversity objectives. This is particularly true for the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Agricultural holdings that invest in environmental and animal welfare measures should be financially rewarded.
  • Peatlands drained for agricultural purposes emit 32 to 40 tonnes of greenhouse gases per hectare and year. Rewetting of these peatlands and wetlands very significantly contributes to preserving the carbon sequestered in the soil and thus reduces emissions. What is needed is a switch to wet peatland use (paludiculture) and a phasing-out of peat extraction. The costs and risks of a changeover can be borne if climate protection services provided by agriculture are financially rewarded.
  • Pasture-based organic livestock husbandry in particular has advantages for climate change mitigation and biodiversity. Here, less energy has to be expended, and nitrate and phosphorus loads to water bodies and ammonia loads on soils are lower. Funding policies should therefore provide greater support for pasture-based farming rather than housed livestock farming.
  • Biodiversity in agriculture also means keeping more and genetically more diverse livestock breeds, growing a greater number of crop species and cultivars, with less monoculture cultivation and tighter crop rotations. Small-scale and diversely structured agricultural landscapes, extensively managed sites, field margins, and less fertilizer and pesticide use benefit the crop-accompanying flora and fauna, from insects to soil organisms. Biodiversity increases yield stability in agriculture and buffers it against the effects of the climate crisis.
  • Nitrogen inputs must be significantly reduced overall, as nitrogen pollutes soils and environmental waters and adversely impacts biodiversity. To achieve this, policymakers must set binding targets for reducing nitrogen emissions in agriculture.
  • The use of agricultural land must focus on producing food for people. For example, approximately 60 per cent of today's cereal production is used as livestock feed, and a further 20 per cent of arable land is devoted to growing energy crops. Reduced animal production and the utilization of residual and waste materials for bioenergy production would free up land that could be used for crop production, protected to preserve species diversity or used as carbon sinks through reforestation.

In the way we use forests:

  • Large parts of our forests are still in an unnatural state. As a result of advancing climate change, forests that are non-natural and lack diversity are particularly affected by disturbances such as storms, drought and insect infestation. Here, species- and structure-rich, climate-resilient forests with native tree species must be created through targeted forest conversion.
  • Through good practice, forest management in Germany must take account of the multiple functions forests provide. Good practice implementation requires an effective system of incentives for more prudent forest use, more climate protection and nature conservation in the forest estate. This will create options for income generation for forest owners beyond the timber market.
  • The direct use of wood as an energy source by burning pollutes the air and atmosphere. As a renewable but finite raw material, wood must, in so far as possible, be put to cascading use and the production of long-lived products. For the benefit of climate protection and nature conservation, especially older broadleaf tree stocks that can only be used as firewood or short-lived wood products such as paper should not be logged.
  • Our knowledge of the development of the forest and effects of its utilization is insufficient. The current forest monitoring through inventories at ten-year intervals must therefore be supplemented and improved with higher temporal and spatial resolution monitoring by means of remote sensing data.
  • Consumption in Germany also threatens forests in the Global South. Legally binding regulations are therefore needed at the national and EU levels to prevent the import of products and raw materials that are associated with deforestation. At the same time, forests must be restored. This should be financed through incentive schemes such as results-based payments that cannot be used to offset fossil emissions.

Overall, natural carbon sinks need their own climate target in the EU and in Germany. This is the only way to compensate for unavoidable emissions and to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality without relying on costly technical solutions. These sinks must be further built up and protected through climate protection measures in land use. More prudent use also helps physiographic regions become more resilient to extreme climatic phenomena.

Land-use competition does not only decrease with reduced animal production and lowered consumption of livestock-based foods, but also when degraded areas are cultivated, agroforestry systems are expanded or agri-photovoltaics is developed. Last but not least, competition for land decreases in the context of the energy or mobility transition if energy is saved and used more efficiently in the economy and society at large, or if traffic is reduced.

These and other measures can mitigate the climate crisis, slow down biodiversity loss and promote sustainable diets. Agricultural yields will also become more stable and less dependent on external factors.

Land-use transformation: information and services from the Oeko-Institut

The experts at the Oeko-Institut work on many aspects of land-use transformation. They highlight connections between climate change mitigation and biodiversity, investigate interactions between the issues and propose integrated solutions for all actors in agriculture, forestry and the food sector.

General information

Online magazine eco@work Issue 4/2021: Biodiversity

Online magazine eco@work Issue 1/2020: Sustainable nutrition

Key topic “Sustainable nutrition”

Key topic “Sustainable agriculture”

Key topic “Biodiversity”

Key topic “International forest conservation”


Study “Gesundes Essen fürs Klima – Auswirkungen der Umsetzung der Planetary Health Diet auf den Landwirtschaftssektor“ des Öko-Instituts [“Healthy diets for the climate - Impacts of the implementation of the planetary health diet on the agricultural sector" by the Oeko-Institut]

Study “Sichtbarmachung versteckter Umweltkosten der Landwirtschaft am Beispiel von Milchproduktionssystemen” [Making visible the hidden environmental costs of agriculture using the example of milk production systems]

Study “Waldvision Deutschland” [A vision for German forests]

Study “Instrumente und Maßnahmen zur Reduktion der Stickstoffüberschüsse” [Instruments and measures for reducing nitrogen surpluses. Study by the Oeko-Institut and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)]

 Brief expert report “Natürliche Senken – Die Potenziale natürlicher Ökosysteme zur Vermeidung von Treibhausgasemissionen und Speicherung von Kohlenstoff” [Natural sinks - The potential of natural ecosystems for carbon storage and the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions]

Study “Sustainable Consumption for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”