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Land use – balance between societal demands and environmental protection

The conversion of undeveloped land into residential areas and roads in Baden-Württemberg has in fact fallen by fifty percent in the past ten years, but there is still a long way to go before land management becomes sustainable. Detailed studies on the changing conditions of land use are necessary in order to develop practical concepts for environmentally compatible planning.

Land is one of the indispensable basics of life. For thousands of years, land has been used for the production of biomass necessary for the survival and growth of humankind. Intact land is a prerequisite for healthy food and clean drinking water, the basis for all biobased supply chains and thus a central economic factor: the food industry alone, one of the largest industries in Germany, generates annual revenues of more than 150 billion euros, according to figures quoted by the National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) in its recommendations to the German government for the pooling of scientific competences in soil and land use management (acatech position paper, 2012).

Limited resources

Development of residential areas and roads in Baden-Württemberg 1996-2011. © Baden-Württemberg Statistics Office 2012
Since land in our state, and increasingly also on a global level, has become a finite commodity, the competition for different forms of land use has in some cases dramatically escalated over the past decades. Twenty percent of the total arable land in Germany (2.3 million hectares) is currently used for growing renewable raw materials for the generation of energy although this only covers two percent of Germany’s energy requirements. In order to reach objectives relating to energy transition and expansion of the sustainable bioeconomy in Germany (energy and fuel crops), production areas need to be scaled up. On behalf of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), the IFEU-Institute in Heidelberg conducted a large study (in cooperation with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and the German Aerospace Center) which found that up to 2030 an increase in crop land for biomass production in Germany to a maximum of 4.3 hectares would only be possible if the defined goals for environmental protection were mostly ignored. However, it is not only traditional farming and forestry industries and nature conservation that compete with the demands of the bioeconomy for land. Land as the basis for residential areas, roads and industrial areas, and for sport and recreational spaces for the population is accorded particular importance. This is especially true for the highly industrialised and densely populated state of Baden-Württemberg.

Reduction of land consumption to 3 hectares per day

Fifteen years ago, the German federal government was already aiming to reduce the disturbingly high rate of 130 hectares of undeveloped land converted to residential areas and roads in Germany per day to a level of 30 hectares per day by 2020. Most German states agreed to this objective. For example, the Baden-Württemberg government’s sustainability commission put in place an objective of three hectares per day in 2020.

And indeed “land consumption”, as it is often called (strictly speaking, land cannot be consumed but only converted), in our state between 2000 and 2011 has shrunk by almost half: from 12 to 6.3 hectares per day. However, reaching the goal of three hectares per day does not result in a sustainable state. This can only be achieved when land consumption is zero, which is what nature conservation agencies are calling for.

Land use in Baden-Württemberg. © Baden-Württemberg Statistics Office 2006
Between 1996 and 2011, the percentage of residential areas and roads has increased from 12.7 to 14.2 percent of Baden-Württemberg’s total land area. This means that within 15 years approximately 540 km2 of land, which had previously been used mainly for agriculture, was converted to residential areas and roads, and space for houses and apartments, industry and trade as well as new roads. That is equivalent to an area covering the urban districts of Stuttgart, Mannheim and Karlsruhe, the three largest cities in Baden-Württemberg. During the same period, the population of the state remained virtually unchanged (approximately 10.7 million). As the German National Academy of Science and Engineering points out in its aforementioned paper, “lack of information is one of the principal reasons of low levels of awareness regarding land consumption.“ However, statistical data available to the agencies is not sufficient for evaluating the changes in land use. For example, some agricultural land (which despite the described losses of the past decades still covers almost half of Baden-Württemberg’s total land area) has undergone drastic changes due to the increasing use of crops for biogas and fuel generation, as well as the need to create space for wind turbines, electricity lines, power grids, etc., which will continue in the future.
Flood meadows along the Upper Rhine © EJ

The IFEU-Institute in Heidelberg had earlier proposed a detailed classification of farming and forestry land using criteria based on their proximity to nature and sustainable usage. Such results must then be applied to new developments in economic and legislative tools for careful management and sustainable planning. It is important to take into consideration the financial worth and value potential of the land, which continues to increase as the intense competition among the various users grows. An example for this is the necessity to expand the flood meadows along rivers due to the increased risk of devastating floods. However, such expansion has not made any progress due to the private interests of landowners.

The German Soil Science Society’s annual convention in 2013 was entitled: “Soils know no borders”. This may be valid in terms of material cycles and interactions with the biological and the non-biological environment. But in terms of bioeconomic issues, it must be pointed out that of the three major inalienable common goods or “common heritage” of humankind – land, water, air – none is more restricted and divided by man than land.

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU)

The co-founder and long-standing manager of the IFEU, Dr. Ulrich Höpfner (left), together with the current management Dipl.-Ing. Markus Duscha (centre) and Dipl.Phys. Jürgen Giegrich (right) at the Institute’s 35-year anniversary celebration on 13th September 2013. © F. Hentschel

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg GmbH (IFEU) is a world-renowned independent institute for researching issues of environmental relevance. It is financed exclusively through project-linked funds, mostly from research projects and assessments on behalf of public bodies such as federal, state and local authorities or the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). Additionally, there are projects funded by private enterprises. The IFEU is a recognised non-profit organisation and is politically and economically independent. The shareholders are all long-term employees. The institute currently has around 70 employees, mostly from environmental science and engineering backgrounds.

Some of the institute’s activities include scientific studies, environmental and sustainability analyses, the preparation of life cycle assessments and risk analyses, as well as advisory and consulting activities in the context of environmental impact studies and strategic environmental reviews. With the development of application-oriented concepts, public relations work and focussed consulting, the IFEU supports decisions in politics, society and the economy in terms of environmental protection and sustainable development.

The IFEU was founded in 1978 by scientists from the University of Heidelberg, including the chemist Dr. Ulrich Höpfner who managed the institute for many decades and is now retired but continues to provide consulting support. The IFEU is currently managed by the engineer Markus Duscha and the physicist Jürgen Giegrich. 

Further information:
Georessource Boden – Wirtschaftsfaktor und Ökosystemdienstleister. Empfehlungen für eine Bündelung der wissenschaftlichen Kompetenz im Boden- und Landmanagement (acatech position paper, December 2012; in German only; see link to acatech on right-hand side).


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