Land use — SOER 2010 thematic assessment

Publication Created 26 Oct 2010 Published 25 Nov 2010
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Land use shapes our environment in positive and negative ways. Productive land is a critical resource for food and biomass production and land use strongly influences soil erosion and soil functions such as carbon storage. Land management largely determines the beauty of Europe's landscapes. It is important therefore to monitor land cover and land-use change through tools such as Corine land cover. Data on land-cover change in Europe from 2000–2006 show that growth in built-up areas and forest land leads to a continued loss of agricultural land. In turn, global economic and environmental change will increasingly influence the way Europeans use land (e.g. as communities work to mitigate and adapt to climate change). Policy responses are needed to help resolve conflicting land-use demands and to guide land-use intensity to support environmental land management.


Land-cover change in Europe

EEA analysis of land-cover change across 36 European countries shows a change in land-cover type for 1.3 % of the total land stock (68 353 km2 of 5.42 million km2) from 2000–2006. The annual rate of these changes has slowed compared to the period 1990–2000. However, land-use specialisation (urbanisation, agricultural intensification and abandonment plus natural afforestation) is still a very strong trend and is expected to continue in the future, depending on many interacting drivers.

While the overall land-change rate has slowed since the 1990s, there were considerable differences between countries: the highest density of land-cover change took place in Portugal, Cyprus, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ireland, but also in Finland and Sweden (forest conversions) and Spain (agricultural transitions). There were also differences between land-use categories. Artificial surfaces increased most in terms of percentage change from 2000 to 2006 (3.4 %), but this masked a deceleration in conversions for residential purposes and an increase in conversions for the purposes of economic sites and infrastructures. The formation of new artificial surfaces was greater than the formation of new agricultural land.

Forest creation and management was the largest land‑cover change in absolute terms, due mainly to internal conversions (i.e. forest felling and regeneration) in the boundaries of forest areas. However, total forest area increased only slightly (by 0.1 %). Arable land and permanent crops decreased by 0.2 % and pastures and mosaics by 0.3 %. Semi-natural vegetation, open spaces and wetlands continued the downward trend observed from 1990–2000. Water surfaces increased due to new artificial lakes and reservoirs taking more land than the consumption of water bodies by other economic activities.

Environmental impacts of land-use change

The way land is used affects human health and wellbeing. Land use has impacts on climate, biodiversity and ecosystem services. It can also cause degradation and pollution of water, soil and air. Although the land change rate in Europe has slowed since the 1990s, biodiversity‑rich natural and semi-natural areas continue to decline, partly through intensification in agriculture but mostly through conversion to forest. Land-use/land-cover change similarly plays a major role in climate change at the global, regional and local scales, by increasing the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when soils and natural vegetation are disturbed. Changes in land use and land cover are also behind major changes in terrestrial emissions of other greenhouse gases, especially methane (through altered surface hydrology and elimination of forest cover) and nitrous oxide (through agriculture).


Policy decisions that shape land‑use involve trade-offs between many sectoral interests, including industry, transport, energy, mining, agriculture and forestry. In particular, agriculture and forestry represent the largest share of land use by economic sectors. These trade‑offs can be tackled through integrated programmes for land use and territorial planning, sectoral policies as well as targeted policy instruments, such as protected area networks. Integrated programmes include the EU objective for Territorial Cohesion and the Water Framework Directive. Future directions of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and implementation of renewable energy targets will have a significant impact on forest and agricultural land use and its intensity. The role of green infrastructure and site protection under Natura 2000 as well as the re-use of land are also important aspects of land resource management. In addition, Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are the important tools for evaluating programmes and projects that have impacts on land resources.

The essential source of European land monitoring data is the Corine land cover inventory, carried out in 1990, 2000 and most recently in 2006. In combination with land statistics, the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security Initiative (GMES) will strengthen the European capacity for earth observation and facilitate more frequent analysis of land-use changes in Europe as a basis for future policymaking.

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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