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Land use

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Page Last modified 24 Jul 2017
4 min read
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Europe is one of the most intensively used continents on the globe. It has the highest proportion of land (up to 80 %) used for settlement, production systems (in particular agriculture and forestry) and infrastructure. However, conflicting land-use demands often arise, requiring decisions that involve hard trade-offs.

There are several important drivers for land-use change in Europe:

  1. production of food and fibre, 
  2. production of biomass for bioenergy,
  3. carbon storage in land and soil, and
  4. the increasing demand for housing and living space per person. 

 

In addition, the link between economic activity, increased mobility and growth of transport infrastructure usually results in land take. Land is a finite resource: how it is used constitutes one of the principal drivers for environmental change, with significant impacts on ecosystems and quality of life, as well as on the management of green infrastructure.

 

Europe is a mosaic of landscapes, reflecting the evolving pattern of change that land use has undergone in the past. Change continues to alter our landscape and environment today, leaving large and often irreversible land-use footprints. Tensions are rising almost everywhere as society’s need for both natural resources and space for settlement and infrastructure conflicts with the capacity of land to support and absorb these needs. The increasing land-take trend puts pressure on biodiversity, degrades habitats and has a series of implications for issues ranging from carbon dioxide emissions to soil sealing, landscape fragmentation and urban heat island effects. Assuring stable land resources requires a long-term management perspective leading to a transition to sustainably managed land.

EU policies

Land-use planning and management are essential if we are to better reconcile land use with environmental concerns. It is a challenge that involves various policy levels and sectors and demands an integrated approach. Monitoring and mediating the environmental consequences of land use while sustaining the production of essential resources and at the same time protecting the environment is a major priority for policy-makers around the world.

Land-use planning and management decisions are usually taken at local or regional level, e.g. as part of urban planning or agricultural and forestry practices. However, the European Commission has a role to play in ensuring that Member States take environmental concerns into account in their land-use development plans and practice integrated land management.

European economies and human wellbeing depend on natural resources, including raw materials and space (land resources), as well as environmental conditions favourable to the provision of clean air, water and healthy food. The 7th Environmental Action programme presents the issue of land use and land resource management as an element of natural capital that is crucial to maintaining ecosystems and the services they provide. It also presents it as an aspect of resource efficiency, tackling unsustainable resource trends.

European Union policies on climate change adaptation are directly relevant to current and future land-use practices and the economic sectors that depend on them. Land use is also an important consideration for many other policy areas such as territorial cohesion, transport, the climate and energy framework and the protection of nature and biodiversity.

EEA activities

EEA activities focus on monitoring, documenting and assessing the spatial pattern, extent and dynamics of land use and land cover in Europe. This is based on data from remote sensing and in situ information, facilitated through Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis and documented in the framework of land and ecosystem accounting tools. The EEA has also been tasked with the development of a knowledge base, integrated assessments and indicators for land systems by combining land data with urban, rural and soil information, as a contribution to the environmental knowledge community in Europe.

The main EEA data source is the Copernicus land monitoring service, which includes the Corine Land Cover data set that was produced for 1990, 2000, 2006, 2012 and 2018 and is based on cooperation with EEA member and collaborating countries and the Copernicus programme. It is the basis for the Land take indicator, for example. Additional Copernicus data sets, such as Imperviousness and other high-resolution thematic layers, and the Urban Atlas have been developed to complement Corine Land Cover time series data and are used for further assessments such as land recycling and landscape fragmentation. The EEA is receiving technical support from the European Topic Centre on Urban, Land and Soil Systems (ETC/ULS).

Outlook 

Several environmental and territorial policies, such as the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, the EU Forest Strategy or the European Commission’s Thematic Strategy for Soil protection rely on sound land-use information as a fundamental reference.

The EEA will also support the implementation by EU institutions and EEA countries of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim, among other things, to reduce the land degradation trend in Europe and promote the interdisciplinary approach for the land system.

The EEA will continue to implement the pan-European and local components of the Copernicus land monitoring service with regards to continental and specific issues of interest such as urban areas, riparian zones and natural grasslands.

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