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Natural Environment

Regenerative landscapes – part 1: What does history teach us about the future of our planet?

In the 1930s and 40s, 3.5million Americans were displaced by the over-farming of delicate prairie land. The dust bowl is just one example from history of the social and environmental dangers brought about by degenerative landscapes.

Dr Mark Everard, UWE
11 May 2021

Global humanity made significant, if regionally variable, social and economic progress during the twentieth century. Previous research has shown that human pressures resulting from land and other resource management strategies implemented to serve our rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel have resulted in the serious and continuing degradation of most global major habitat types. Ecosystem damage over the last 50 years of the twentieth century was greater than in any comparable period of human history, with estimates that the demands of contemporary global society effectively consume 1.5 ‘Planet Earths’.

The term ‘regenerative landscapes’ refers to uses and management of natural resources not simply for narrow purposes, but instead in ways that ensure as many as possible of the multiple supportive capacities of the ecosystem are retained or restored, building system resilience and supporting a diversity of linked socio-economic benefits.

Driving ESG in Real Estate and Construction – A Foundation for Impact Investment

There is no doubt that demand for ESG-linked real estate investment is increasing. With a wide range of global sustainability challenges and complex risks on the rise, investors are starting to re-evaluate traditional portfolio approaches. As public pressure builds for industries to adhere to environmental, social and governance standards, the real estate and construction industries are no exception. Numerous regulations and cultural shifts are changing the course of the European ESG landscapes. How exactly is ESG affecting the real estate and construction industries? How does the European ESG landscape look right now? Will these industries be changing its portfolio strategy (more) towards ESG?

Unintended negative outcomes arising from the narrow exploitation of ecosystems – examples from history

America’s Dust Bowl

Approximately 3.5 million people moved out of the Plains states in the United States between the 1930s and 1940s[1]. These people were displaced because of the rapid degradation of farmland, which had been converted from prairieland[2] under efforts to combat the disastrous effects of the US Great Depression (please hyperlink: https://www.rics.org/uk/wbef/megatrends/urbanisation/the-history-and-future-of-places-part-6--war-depression-and-reconstruction/). Removal of the protective prairie vegetation combined with the use of deep ploughing technology and a severe drought destabilised the soil, making it vulnerable to severe erosion by wind and rain. The resulting dry lands across the American Midwest created dust clouds that engulfed farmsteads and rural towns.

Collapse of the Newfoundland cod fish stocks

In Newfoundland, the introduction of supertrawlers[3] combined with a lack of effective fishery management policies, enabled fishing vessels to catch 8 million tons of cod over a 15-year period; the same amount as had been caught over the previous 100 years[4]. By the 1990s, cod stocks, along with the local industry and economy, had entirely collapsed, and the whole coastal ecosystem had undergone an apparently irreversible shift into a different state almost devoid of cod[5].

In Newfoundland, the introduction of supertrawlers enabled fishing vessels to catch 8 million tons of cod over a 15-year period; the same amount as had been caught over the previous 100 years.

Large dams

Water retention and diversion schemes impose a significant ‘take’ on land, water and other natural resources. Where landscapes were formerly in common stewardship, the dispossession, disempowerment and displacement of landless people is common[6]. Large dams fundamentally change riverine ecosystems by simplifying the hydrology. This halts the regeneration of soil fertility on downstream floodplains, destabilises fish stocks and provides an ideal environment for vectors of water-borne diseases. Likely ecosystem service outcomes arising from the proposed Pancheshwar Dam on the India/Nepal border in the Himalayas revealed a highly asymmetric distribution of benefits and costs between already privileged constituencies and potentially millions of people suffering as a result of the degradation of the flows, nutrients, sediment and biodiversity of the Kali river system[7]. All of these factors compromise the livelihoods of an often ‘silent’ majority of people living in watersheds surrounding large dams.

Evidence of ‘degenerative landscapes’ comprising linked ecological and socio-economic decline at the global level

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment[8] found that:

  • The number of species on the planet is steeply declining and homogenising through the introduction of invasive species. Over the past century, human actions have increased the extinction rate by up to 1,000 times over background rates.
  • Approximately 20% of the world’s coral reefs were lost and an additional 20% degraded in the last decades of the twentieth century.
  • The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from 280 to 410 parts per million between 1750 and 2017; well over 60% of that increase occurring since 1959. This has been primarily due to fossil fuel combustion and land use changes[9].

Over the past century, human actions have increased species extinction rates by up to 1,000 times.

The United Nations observed multiple desertification effects[10]:

  • 52% of drylands used for agriculture are moderately or severely affected by soil degradation, affecting 1.5 billion people with hunger globally. This degradation has severe future food security, conflict potential and other implications.
  • An estimated 27,000 species are lost each year through desertification.
  • Arable land loss is a major global problem, occurring at 30 to 35 times the historical rate with 24 billion tons of fertile soil – one of the most significant, non-renewable geo-resources – eroded from global landscapes annually.

Tropical forests continue to disappear at an accelerating rate[11]:

  • Global forest area reduced by approximately 40% in the last three centuries, three-quarters of this occurring during the last two centuries[12]. Forests have completely disappeared in 25 countries, with greater than 90% loss of forest cover in another 29 countries.
  • At least half of recent global deforestation is caused by demands for land to serve commercial agriculture, with 49% of tropical deforestation between 2002 and 2012 due to illegal conversion[13].
  • Forest loss remobilises vast reserves of stored carbon from biomass and soil, generating nearly 50% more greenhouse gases than the global transportation sector[14].

Deforestation destroys habitats for a diversity of species. It also degrades ecosystems’ capacity to store and purify water, and removes the natural buffer for storm energy: a buffer that also prevents soil erosion.

References

This piece is an excerpt from Regenerative Landscapes, a report funded by the RICS Research Trust and published by RICS. The RICS Research Trust became fully independent of RICS in January 2021 and has been rebranded as the Property Research Trust.