Ecosystems and wellbeing – the impact of land use changes

Windmolens in agrarisch landschap
© Hollandse Hoogte / Rob Voss
To measure well-being in the Netherlands, the ‘monitor of well-being and sustainable development goals’ identifies four types of capital: social, human, economic and natural capital. These capital forms must remain at a sufficiently high level to ensure the long term availability of resources and thus enable future generations to enjoy a level of well-being comparable to the one today. Natural capital is one of these capitals, and it is essential in that it is critical: once depleted, many forms of natural capital cannot be replaced or re-produced. This is the reason that the Dutch ecosystem accounts (EA-NL) monitor natural capital and society’s reliance on it in great detail. The accounts are compliant with the international UN SEEA EA (System of environmental Economic accounts – ecosystem accounts) accounting system.

In terms of this accounting system, ecosystems contribute to well-being and the economy by providing ‘ecosystem services’ – goods (e.g. timber, fodder) or services (e.g. air and water purification, opportunities for recreation and tourism, aesthetical and religious values, etc.) – to society and the economy. Many of these services can be quantified, in physical as well as monetary terms. For the Netherlands, thirteen ecosystem services have been quantified and mapped in detail.

The quantity of delivered services is determined by three factors. The first is the extent of ecosystems: how many hectares of – for example – forested land, arable land and built-up areas are there at a given point in time? The EA-NL extent account provides very detailed records of the extent of fifty ecosystem types in the Netherlands and changes therein through time (2013-2020). Therefore, land conversion can be traced in detail, from local to national scale. Each ecosystem type is potentially capable of supplying a range of ecosystem services, with the highest contribution from natural and semi-natural ecosystems. However, as in many countries, land conversion places substantial pressure on ecosystems in the Netherlands.

The second determining factor is the condition of ecosystems, which is assessed by quantifying a range of indicators describing the quality of air, water, soil and vegetation. Indicators for biodiversity are also included. Many of the condition indicators reveal that ecosystems and their biodiversity are under great pressure in the Netherlands. The rationale of the EA-NL accounts is that the quantity and quality of supply of ecosystem services to society is determined by the size (extent) and health (condition) of ecosystems.

The third determinant of ecosystem services supply is the use that is made of them: in line with the national accounts, supply must equal use. Accordingly, use (and hence, supply) is usually higher for most ecosystem services situated near densely populated areas. With ongoing substantial land use changes and increasing pressure on the condition and biodiversity of ecosystems, it is clear that well-being related to natural capital may also be under pressure.

In this report, we assess the magnitude of land use changes between 2013 and 2020, and its potential impact on the delivery of ecosystem services. The largest absolute changes from 2013 to 2020 are the decline of arable land, and an increase in meadows. The total forested area has also declined, mainly as a result of the decrease of woods outside protection areas. The extent of densely populated areas has increased. The figure below shows the current distribution of ecosystem types in the Netherlands. Nearly half of the total land area is in use for agriculture, with equal parts used as meadows and as arable land.

The detailed and consistent maps that have been developed for multiple years made it possible to conduct detailed spatial analyses of land conversion. The figure below shows the conversion from agricultural land to other ecosystem types, and vice versa, per province. The figure shows the gross result (‘loss of agricultural land to other ecosystem types’, as well as the net results (‘loss of agricultural land to other ecosystem types’ minus ‘developments of new agricultural land from conversions of other ecosystem types’). From both perspectives, the spatial differences are substantial. Between 2013 and 2020, just over 1.3 percent of agricultural land in the Netherlands was converted to a different type of ecosystem, mainly built-up areas and infrastructure, and to a lesser extent natural and semi-natural areas.

Land use changes are high on the Dutch political agenda, because space is coming under increasing pressure. In addition to land already used for residential and business purposes, including food supply, areas are also being claimed to meet various other objectives: there is the housing construction target, but land is also needed for climate adaptation measures and the generation of renewable energy. There is also a growing need for green and recreational areas. Added to this, the Netherlands has to comply with national and international agreements on protection of nature and biodiversity, for example in Natura2000 areas, and on the expansion of the Netherlands Nature Network. As the risk is increasing that these interests will clash, the report also examines the spatial claims related to policy aims on nature development and construction (housing). These analyses are intended to assess the potential order of magnitude of spatial claims that are to take place before 2030.

The report shows that if these spatial claims were to result in conversions of agricultural land only, the conversion of agricultural land between 2021 and 2030 would be more than two and half times as large as the conversion recorded in the ecosystem accounts between 2013 and 2020. Other estimates result in a spatial claim equivalent to between 4 and 13 percent of current agricultural acreage.