Major research investment into national land use transformation

Date published: 06 February 2024

AFBI, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and Ulster University (UU) are members of a winning consortium of 34 organisations awarded a £6.5m government grant to establish a ‘Land Use for Net Zero’ (LUNZ) Hub.

The LUNZ Hub aims to provide all four UK administrations with the rapid evidence they need to develop policies that will drive the UK land transformation required to achieve Net Zero by 2050.
  • The LUNZ Hub aims to provide all four UK administrations with the rapid evidence they need to develop policies that will drive the UK land transformation required to achieve Net Zero by 2050.
  • The UK wide consortium includes experts from research, farming and industry across issues including livestock production, green finance, renewable energy, planning, soil health, afforestation and water management.
  • The NI partners role will be to come together and develop long-term, sustainable solutions in land use that produce food, grow the economy and cut carbon emissions.
  • Professor Elizabeth Magowan (AFBI), Dr Sharon Huws (QUB) and Professor Jim Harkin (UU) represent the Northern Ireland leadership team within the LUNZ Hub.

A first of its kind consortium of 34 leading research and stakeholder organisations has been established to help all four UK administrations address land use and agriculture as a major greenhouse gas emitting sector.

The “Land Use for Net Zero” (LUNZ) Hub, co-led led by The James Hutton Institute and the University of Leicester, with £6.5 million funding from UK Research and Innovation, will provide UK and devolved nations timely evidence around land use, from renewable energy to soil carbon, food production and green finance, to help drive the land transformations needed to achieve net zero by 2050.

It will also play a pivotal role in helping to communicate more widely the critical importance of land and how it’s used as a major carbon sink or source.

Agriculture and land use have a major impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as a wide range of other environmental, societal and economic outcomes, but progress towards decarbonisation is lagging behind other sectors.

The declaration recently announced at COP28 on sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems and climate action states the UK government’s intent to act on land use and climate change by increasing public financial support and scaling science-based solutions, and LUNZ will be a key conduit for these actions.

Achieving the transformational change in land management needed will depend on government access to world-class research and innovation and a novel approach to collaboration across a variety of critical stakeholders.

Hub co-lead of the winning Consortium, Professor Lee-Ann Sutherland (The James Hutton Institute), explained:

“The science behind land use is highly complex.  It is influenced by a range of economic, social and environmental factors, and complicated further by a changing evidence base, novel market forces, the emergence of new data and models, and disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence. Our aim is to bridge the gap between researchers and policy makers and our work will be focused on meeting specific policy-maker needs, giving them the evidence they need in the format and timeframe they need it.

“Our Consortium has developed a series of innovative mechanisms to do just that – an Agile Policy Centre, Net Zero Futures Platform, and Creative Methods Lab – each tailored to generate clear, robust answers to urgent questions.”

Equally novel is the approach to stakeholder participation in the Hub, as Hub Co-lead, Professor Heiko Balzter (University of Leicester), explained:

“Creating a fair, realistic path to Net Zero in the land use sector can only be achieved with the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders throughout the process– to provide their expertise, share the Hub’s outputs and ensure its proposals work in practice as well as theory.

“Our consortium reflects this – ranging from those at the cutting edge of climate change modelling to farmers groups, advisory organisations, non-governmental organisations and an arts collective.  Their range and profile will ensure the Hub’s impact extends throughout society – so everyone can engage in land use transformation – from the food they buy to their holiday, housing and investment decisions.”

At the heart of the challenge is understanding how transformative change can be achieved and predicting the impact of proposed approaches against multiple environmental, societal and economic outcomes.  A central strand of the Hub’s approach will be the development of plausible and innovative net zero scenarios and associated pathways – novel tools based on advanced modelling methodologies that can predict the impacts of different policy interventions across a variety of metrics.

The project in Northern Ireland is co-lead by Professor Sharon Huws, Director of Research at the School of Biological Sciences and Institute for Global Food Security (Queen’s University Belfast) and Professor Elizabeth Magowan, Director of Sustainable Agri-Food Sciences Division (Agi-Food and Biosciences Institute) with Professor Jim Harkin, Head of the School of Computing, Engineering and Intelligent Systems (Ulster University) as lead of the Topic Advisory Group on Digital Opportunities.

Commenting on the announcement, Professor Huws said “We are delighted to be Northern Ireland co-leads on the Land-use for Net Zero hub.  This is an important project that will help define the future agricultural landscape through to policy”.

Professor Harkin said “We are excited that Ulster will be influencing policy addressing issues from utilising artificial Intelligence, renewable energy, soil carbon to green finance”.

Professor Elizabeth Magowan highlighted, “I am delighted that a strong and diverse NI team, representing AFBI, UU and QUB are working together closely to support both our local policy makers as well as the LUNZ Hub as a whole achieve their goals of net zero.  Collaboration on this scale is key to finding solutions with the maximum impact at pace for all stakeholders.”

Notes to editors: 

The 'net zero target' refers to a UK government commitment to ensure the UK reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels by 2050. If met, this would mean the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the UK would be equal to or less than the emissions removed by the UK from the environment. (House of Lords Library).

The LUNZ Hub is part of the overall ‘Transforming land use for net zero, nature and people (LUNZ)’ Programme which aims to mobilise and support research that works in partnership with all the administrations of the UK, and industry, to tackle net zero through action in the UK land sector.

Alongside the Hub, the LUNZ programme will fund research that feeds directly into policy and decision-making in three interlinked themes: soil health, agricultural systems and land use change.

The Hub is co-funded by UKRI, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (on behalf of England and Wales), the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, and the Scottish Government. It has been co-designed with Defra and the Welsh and Scottish governments.

The LUNZ Hub is funded for 40 months, starting 1 November 2023.

AFBI’s Vision is “Scientific excellence delivering impactful and sustainable outcomes for society, economy and the natural environment”.

AFBI’s Purpose is “To deliver trusted, independent research, statutory and surveillance science and expert advice that addresses local and global challenges, informs government policy and industry decision making, and underpins a sustainable agri-food industry and the natural and marine environments”.

AFBI’s core areas:

  • Leading improvements in the agri-food industry to enhance its sustainability.
  • Protecting animal, plant and human health.
  • Enhancing the natural and marine environment.

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