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Projecting land-use change, its environmental impact, and pathways to reducing its impact

Project Description

Habitat loss and degradation, driven by agriculture, affects more species than any other threat (Tilman et al. 2017). As human populations and per capita consumption increase, this pressure is likely to increase massively, as vast new areas of natural habitats are converted to farmland. Conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services in the face of such changes is at the heart of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 15 (General Assembly of the United Nations 2015) and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2020 Aichi Targets—to be revised next year (UNEP CBD 2010). At the same time, wild nature continues to decline across much of the world (Brondizio et al. 2019) and balancing human needs with environmental concerns remains a major societal challenge.

Responding to this challenge requires high resolution, spatially explicit assessments of where agriculture is likely to expand, and which species and ecosystem services are most likely to be affected. These can be used to plan appropriate conservation responses—such as protected areas—and to assess which proactive policy changes to food and agricultural systems—for example, increasing agricultural yields or shifting human diets—are likely to have the biggest impact in reducing threats.

The need for such research is particularly acute in lower income countries, where increases in population size and per capita consumption are likely to be greatest, where land use changes are most rapid, and agricultural yields remain far lower than in wealthier countries. In addition, such countries may have relatively few resources to invest in conventional conservation responses, such as protected areas, but tend to hold a disproportionate share of the world’s biodiversity.

This studentship will link global scale projections of land demand and land-use change to local-scale environmental, social and economic impacts. The interests of the student will determine the precise focus, and therefore specific details of the studentship. For example, the student could focus on:
• Biodiversity conservation: mapping and identifying the specific species and regions that are likely to be put under pressure by future land-use change, and exploring the possibilities, costs, and benefits, of expanding protected areas or other conservation efforts to protect these. The student could consider which groups in society are likely to be most affected by these changes.
• Ecosystem services: modelling the possible impacts of different future scenarios on development pathways, ecosystem service provision and valuation—either monetary and non-monetary. This could encompass, for example, carbon stocks and flows, or water resources. The student may want to consider possible radical disruption scenarios that could alter development pathways.
• Practicalities of achieving more sustainable development: investigating probable constraints on sustainable development pathways (e.g. water limitation for increasing agricultural yields), trade-offs and synergies with other development goals (e.g. within the UN Sustainable Development Goals), and potential policy mechanisms to achieve goals.
• Socio-economic impacts: exploring the potential social and economic consequences of different future scenarios.
Supervision and training

The studentship will work with Dr David Williams and Prof Lindsay Stringer and also benefit from the interdisciplinary expertise present in the Sustainable Development Group. The combination of quantitative science, remote sensing and GIS analytics, biodiversity science, and socio-economic techniques that this studentship could employ offers an exceptional opportunity for interdisciplinary training.
The student will be able to determine the focal country or region for the project, based on interest, any existing familiarity with different regions, and existing contacts. The supervisory team has excellent links to many potential countries, including Zambia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nepal. Analysis of existing datasets (current and projected future agricultural extent; habitat availability for >20,000 species; key biodiversity areas; protected areas etc.) could be combined with significant fieldwork, supported by the DTP research allowance and performed in conjunction with, and supported by local contacts.

This project would make major advances in linking global projections of food demand and land-use change with national- and local-scale changes and ‘on-the-ground’ data. In addition, it has the potential to explicitly link the identification of trade-offs with practical steps to alleviate their negative impacts.

Funding Notes

UK / EU candidates only

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