We are all aware of the pressing need to slow climate change and the contribution that ‘net zero’ policies have to make. Here, Division member and Human Geographer Eirini Saratsi argues that getting to net zero is a ‘wicked problem’ that needs to be tackled in the round. Ethics and social and ecological diversity need to be considered alongside landscape and ecosystem functions in any decisions about changing the ways we use or work with the land in the future.

The ‘wicked’ nature of net-zero

Arguments about pausing further warming of the planet are generally fashioned around the net-zero carbon concept, where all carbon emissions are balanced with all carbon absorbed and locked by natural or artificial processes. It follows that net-zero policies and strategies can rarely be exclusively about one or the other; decisions about cutting emissions must ensure they do not distract carbon absorption and vice versa. Furthermore, net-zero solutions come in many different forms, and targets can be relevant to many sectors, each of which interrelates to, and affects many others. This complexity means net-zero solutions are multidimensional, involving a large number of stakeholders and opinions, where answers are not right or wrong but better or worse depending on the point of view. As a result, they are ‘wicked’ problems requiring difficult choices affected by a wide range of factors. Acknowledging the ‘wicked’ nature of net-zero targets, any decision about the way we use and interact with the land needs to take ecological, physical, social, cultural, and ethical considerations into account. Every net-zero solution should be realistic, place specific, time enduring and time responsive.

Learning from different perspectives

Taking a holistic approach requires that different perspectives are considered equally. As part of our work within the Landscapes Decisions programme, we bring together perspectives from natural and social science, humanities and the arts to reflect, understand and evaluate how modern landscapes can absorb potential zero-carbon policies. Our discussions around the complexities characterising the different landscape types demonstrate that our approaches should be more open and inclusive and make space for other forms of knowledge beyond academic or expert communities to be considered. Robust scientific approaches are essential in understanding landscape functions, and in many situations, such ‘evidence-based’ approaches will be key to pursuing net-zero agendas. Yet, these insights alone are not enough to achieve transformative changes; we need to place those in social and cultural contexts to avoid possible solutions becoming the object of conflict and rejection by societies.

Engaging with ethics

Landscapes are the environments where people develop their livelihoods, interact with each other and shape their cultures. Any decisions related to landscapes affect people’s lives, potentially enriching their well-being or colliding with beliefs about what is preferable, viable or ethically acceptable. Our work explores how taking actions to reduce emissions may not always have a net-zero effect, depending on the landscape context. Decisions have to be fair, open and transparent and reflect local needs and the perspectives of humans, wildlife and ecosystems.

Engaging with ethics can be even more challenging when future generations are in the equation. Meeting net-zero targets means imagining absent futures and taking actions with real effects on our present. Of course, we can imagine possible futures based on past and current experiences. However, perceptions about what could be good or bad, beneficial or detrimental, necessary or excessive, can change over time, and today’s solutions may not have an enduring effect. Thus, decisions need to be both, time specific to reflect current needs, and time-enduring, so benefits gained today are maintained in the future. At the same time, moral decisions about future generations should be time-responsive, if there is a need to be adapted without catastrophic consequences. It is, therefore, necessary to consider how our imaginative futures fit into ethical perspectives and worldviews. Insights from arts and humanities can help consider broader narratives and negotiate different understandings of plausible futures. They can elicit historical understandings and practices, harness intuitive and embodied knowledge and reveal new perspectives regarding net-zero carbon solutions.

The right action in the right place

Achieving a common goal such as net-zero requires alignment across multiple policies, sectors and scales. That is simply because carbon capture and release are processes that are utterly connected with life and the complexity engrained in it. Rich, complex ecosystems are healthier, more balanced and more efficient in carbon capture and more resilient in carbon release. Maintaining high biodiversity in landscapes is thus essential for achieving net-zero carbon. This requires rich mosaics of healthy interlinked habitats to co-exist and be managed carefully for minimum ecosystem disturbance. Single land uses, which are currently dominating our development patterns, break up the web of life, leading to species loss and disturbance of the natural cycles of carbon absorption. For example, land uses such as grazing on the uplands (e.g. moorlands) and agriculture on the lowlands (e.g. the ‘fens’) can be detrimental to carbon capture and retention by peatlands that provide carbon stocks of vital importance across the UK.

Moreover, the value of the different habitats in terms of the amount of carbon they can store is not always straightforward. For instance, trees and woodlands are highly valued for capturing and storing carbon, but certain types of grassland can be better at this than some types of woodlands. At the same time, it is well established that critically important amounts of carbon storage happen in forest soils. Thus, expanding woodland cover can increase above-ground carbon embedded in the tree biomass without achieving a net increase in ecosystem carbon stock as a whole. In addition, if trees are used for timber production, increased harvest levels can lead to an overall net increase in carbon emissions. Investing in renewable energy infrastructure is vital, but where and how this is positioned on the landscapes needs to be carefully considered to minimise adverse impacts on ecosystem functioning.

Supporting the right ecosystem in the right place requires diverse land uses and appropriate management practices to be at work. It also requires policies and regulations to maintain the necessary social structures. Net-zero solutions should aim to build the resilience of landscapes by improving the health, diversity and interconnectivity of ecosystems and enhancing social diversity that can support new approaches to land management and more sustainable lifestyles (changes in eating, living, and travelling habits).

Mind the gaps

In our discussions, we listed what we already know – which is not little – about landscape functions and the social factors that can affect decisions towards net-zero carbon. We do not offer solutions, but suggestions that we believe can lead us in the right direction. We advocate a holistic approach in landscape decision-making for net-zero carbon by setting up three overarching recommendations: (a) adopting transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches for placing landscape decisions within the social context of the consequences they generate (e.g. engaging with aesthetic, ethical and social factors); (b) promoting robust ecosystem management practices that enhance biodiversity and build diverse, eco-social and resilient systems (e.g. learning from past experiences and other-than-scientific forms of knowledge); and finally (c) increasing local and devolved decision-making capabilities by harnessing creativity and prioritising inclusion and social justice. Under each recommendation, we list common approaches to achieve them. We highlight gaps in current practices that prevent them from happening and suggest mechanisms to fill in these gaps.

Transformative changes can only be achieved by shifting perceptions and harnessing all kinds of knowledge and values. Innovation does not always have to come from embracing new technologies; it can be achieved by redesigning the way we think and adopting a better operating system.

Swift action towards achieving net-zero carbon targets is now imperative. We are at the start of a long run, and landscape decisions that are inclusive and draw upon a range of expertise and perspectives are the only way forward.

Read the latest report: Beth Cole, Eirini Saratsi, Katherine Earnshaw, Simon Willcock, Emma Gardner, Andrew Bradley, et al. (2022) Making Landscape Decisions to Meet Net Zero Carbon: Pathways that consider ethics, socio-ecological diversity, and landscape functions, Report, University of Leicester.