As our webinar and follow up articles have highlighted, there are a range of pressures we must address for the future of Australia’s food and land use. With increasing demands on a finite area of land, choices about land use will become ever more critical when confronting the challenges of climate change. Land use decisions made at small scales, like the individual property level, cumulatively impact on the future sustainability of our food and land use systems. 

Current approaches to land use strategy and planning are not sufficiently set up to deal with immediate and future pressures on the land, and the complex interactions of land use choices. How we manage land sits across major global challenges like mitigating and adapting to climate change, producing enough food to feed a growing population, sustainably managing natural resources like soil and water, and generating energy. 

These challenges are pressing and complex, yet Australia currently has no coordinated strategy for land use, a lack of connection between food policy and land use planning, and limitations in considering the impacts of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies on land over time. 

Land use strategy and planning occurs formally and informally, at different scales, and involving many different players. 

From an individual farmer making decisions on their property, through to regional plans and national scale strategies, land use strategy and planning involves a myriad of formal and informal processes and factors. This includes statutory planning schemes and public policy, as well as cultural values, attitudes and beliefs. 

The Land Use Futures program recently worked with a group of leaders and strategic thinkers from diverse sectors in land use, including agriculture, forestry and conservation, to explore and better understand key issues, enablers for change, and possible ways of shifting how land use strategy and planning currently occurs in Australia. 

We heard the need for transformative shifts in how we currently strategise and plan for land use in Australia. 

Our discussions demonstrated there is a case for transformative shifts, like developing a national land use strategy to steer land use change over time, to incentivise sustainable land use practices, and to deliver multiple benefits from sustainable land use. There are examples of national level approaches in other jurisdictions, for example, political parties in Ireland have agreed to developing a national land use plan that will help to inform both economic and social planning, alongside climate and environment outcomes. 

Embedding climate in planning schemes will be instrumental in achieving a sustainable food and land use system. The Planning Institute of Australia’s campaign for Climate-Conscious Planning Systems sets out ten key reforms for every Australian state and territory planning system, from legislating climate change goals in the Planning Act, through to setting carbon budgets at the precinct level.

There is also a case for more gradual or local-level change, like enabling greater community participation and leadership in land use planning processes. There are examples of best practice already underway, like the Darkinjung Delivery Framework, which allows for greater self-determination for the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council in pursuing better social and economic outcomes from land use planning.

While there are a range of initiatives enabling more strategic approaches to land use in Australia, achieving alignment between these initiatives will be critical. 

Coordination and target-setting will be pivotal to navigating the tensions and trade-offs between land use needs. 

We are already seeing momentum build, particularly at the grassroots level, towards more sustainable land use practices. And while there are many champions working in different sectors, at different scales, to advance sustainable land use outcomes, there remains a challenge in coordinating action, and aligning action with appropriately ambitious national goals. 

While there may be opportunities for ‘win–win’ outcomes from land use choices, increasing pressures on land use in a changing climate will require us to confront some difficult choices, like whether we can sustain our current level of agricultural production, or what proportion of economy-wide emissions the land sector should be responsible for. Some of these get to the core of what is important to us in our communities, and for our country. 

Our discussions also surfaced big questions around the kinds of structural and cultural shifts that might be needed. 

Considering what it might take to achieve a sustainable transformation of our food and land use system raises many questions: How does an economic growth paradigm impact sustainable land use decision-making? How might the Western-centric notion of ‘land use’ rather than ‘stewardship’ pose challenges? How do private property rights interact with the public good? 

While no single person or group can answer these questions alone, they open up a helpful discussion on the values that underpin ways of using land, and invite consideration of different ways of knowing. Improving approaches to land use strategy and planning will benefit from drawing on different perspectives across the food and land use system. It is this fuller consideration that is needed to inform the future direction of land use strategy and planning. 

The complexity of the food and land use system underscores the need to better understand the impact of land use decisions over time. 

Looking across the breadth of the food and land use system, and involving a broad range of players in land use discussions, offers a clearer understanding of the role of land use planning and strategy in supporting climate change outcomes. Leadership and participation will be needed from all sectors to accelerate change and to achieve ambitious global climate targets, and this needs to be steered by a better understanding of how land use choices in one area can impact on another.

The Land Use Futures program is supporting leaders and decision-makers in Australia with information to grapple with and act on key questions underpinning the future sustainability of our food and land use system, including the complex and multiple interactions and impacts of land use choices and demands across sectors. We look forward to sharing our work in the coming months.