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Futures of using nature in rural and marine Europe in 2050: Policy implications

Author

Totti Könnölä

Aug 14, 2023

The immense social and technological evolution of the Anthropocene continues transforming the Earth’s surface and its dynamics through extensive (mis-)use of its resources, both on the land and in the sea. These challenges were addressed in the Deep Dive on rural and marine areas in Europe in 2050. We present here policy implications drafted based on the four scenarios developed.

In Scenario A, European Civic Ecovillages pursue self-sufficiency and contribute to establishing a cooperative, locally oriented, caring economy restoring the ecosystem carrying capacities in land and sea. In Scenario B on Sustainable High-tech Europe, European businesses enjoy global leadership in regenerative and multi-functional high-tech solutions for energy, aquaculture and agriculture. In Scenario C on the United States of Europe, centrally planned Europe is divided between intensive use of land and sea and large conservation areas. Scenario D on European Permacrisis portrays Europe in a post-growth and politically scattered context that leads to low rates of innovation and fragmented use of land and sea. Please find the full blog post on the scenarios here

 

Each scenario depicts a different future in rural and marine Europe. None of the scenarios features a decisive solution to the global climate and biodiversity crises. Scenario A forcefully targets the resolution of the biodiversity crisis in Europe, by aligning human practices with nature, but provides little support to global climate and biodiversity crises. Scenario B proactively tackles the biodiversity crisis both in Europe and internationally but struggles with the fragmentation of efforts and with scaling up good practices and wider impact to curb the crisis. Scenarios C and D with intensive use of nature reduce biodiversity. Thanks to European-wide coordination Scenario C can protect vast areas with positive impacts to biodiversity, whereas Scenario D struggles with the major fragmentation of conservation efforts and its detrimental impact on biodiversity. Such challenges illustrate the importance of balanced approaches in developing both local and global solutions to climate and biodiversity crises.

 

The subsequent further cross-cutting analysis pinpoints some threats and opportunities for rural and marine areas in Europe. This may provide a basis for further reflection on the possible role of R&I policy in Europe in the future and serve as inspiration when designing future R&I programmes in Europe.

 

Economy and technology

• In three of the scenarios big business plays a key role in determining what is scaled up but, in parallel, local communities try out solutions. Apart from the rest, in scenario A (European civic ecovillage) both the innovation and deployment are in local communities. R&I programmes searching for scale could well benefit from both dynamics.

• All scenarios face the challenge of balancing sustainability and food affordability and security in different modalities of agriculture and aquaculture. The advances may well come from integrated approaches that also consider major shifts in diets and production.

• Solving negative externalities of large-scale monoculture continues to be a relevant research stream, for instance via precision farming (see scenario C). Still, research and development is also needed on alternative farming practices that allow closing the loops and controlling the production, for instance, vertical farming, aquaponics and (semi)-closed recirculating water systems for aquaculture highlighted in scenarios A and B.

• Multifunctional use of land and sea can provide win-win solutions, e.g. aquaponics, agrivoltaics, agroforestry, marine permaculture and floating PV panels, and thus strike a balance between different needs. This often represents major changes in practices; thus, the local (prosumer) communities need to be part of the process for their insights and buy-in (especially prevalent in scenarios A and B).

Demographics, lifestyles and values

• All the scenarios depict the future of rural and marine areas related to socio-ecological crises. Further research could aim to strengthen civic resilience. Could measures to increase crisis preparedness among individual and local communities be developed?

• Research on the future of rural and marine areas and demographic changes could be useful given the above-mentioned uncertainties. For instance, water scarcity or other climate-related crises may induce major migrations also in Europe.

• Fragmentation in rural and marine communities and planning can become a major concern. Even if good practices exist, fragmentation hampers their scaling up, while coordination may breed thriving active local communities. R&I programmes could provide opportunities for further mapping, showcasing and enhancing the mutual learning between good practices of local community-based organisations.

• The livelihood of rural communities is to a greater or lesser degree entangled with urben spaces and how their inhabitants value rural communities. R&I can be involved in pursuing better connections between urban and rural, such as online farmers’ markets, remote working and the future evolution of rural infrastructure.

 

Governance

• The diffusion of innovations is crucial for sustainable rural and marine areas. In this respect, and where the framework conditions favour planning and encourage investment, it should be easier to scale up. R&I policy should aim to improve framework conditions, including the predictability of government R&I programmes.

• Integrated spatial planning of urban and rural areas is a key issue. Space, whether land or sea, could be envisaged as an integrated territory defined by orography and natural geography, e.g. drainage basins, regional watersheds and coastal seabed (see the figure below), rather than socio-political boundaries. R&I policy instruments could be demarcated with such an integrated approach in mind; joint cross-national research institutes and infrastructure could be established.

• The use of spaces could benefit from extending user rights. For instance, land ownership models in some rural areas could be replaced or complemented with public ownership and user rights, learning from the practices within the marine sector, with the state granting user rights in certain areas or through the designation of protected areas, excluding or revoking user rights previously in force. Experimentation, e.g. in regulatory sandboxes, could also rely on public sector innovation processes. Before experimentation in regulatory sandboxes can take place, there is a need for R&I efforts to detail how the user rights could be extended in different conditions and what would be the impacts to different stakeholders.

• The scenarios related to diverse democratic practices. Policy labs on citizen participation in decisions on rural and marine areas could serve to connect citizens with these areas. Direct involvement of local communities in R&I programmes could be a means to avoid NIMBY effects and ensure their support.

 

Environment

• There are major risks in a patchy land and sea use that segments ecosystems and breaks up ecological corridors, diminishing the biodiversity and the resilience of nature. R&I programmes on integrated spatial planning of land and sea, also including for in-land waters, can pave the way towards more resilient, more circular water use and integrated management for addressing tensions between alternative uses of land and sea and in parallel ensuring sufficient size of protected areas.

• The effects of monoculture and economic specialisation reducing societal and ecological resilience could be mitigated by concentrating them on limited high-intensity production areas and by scaling up regenerative alternative practices. Both these directions could be promoted via R&I instruments to experiment and learn about ecological and socio-economic implications.

• Technology could play an important role in monitoring nature to understand it and the impacts of human actions. Multidisciplinary research on resilience in rural and marine areas could help increase preparedness, including integrated planning supported with biodiversity monitoring combining in-situ sensors and remote space technologies and advances in data analytics (AI) and construction of digital twins of integrated spaces for developing reliable future projections. Also, advances in guidance and toolkits could serve to improve the reliability of citizen science.

• Regenerative ecosystem-based approaches and practices could strengthen synergies between nature restoration and production activities. R&I programmes could experiment scaling up such practices, and with how nature restoration and rewilding could be further connected to climate mitigation and climate adaptation.

 

Final remarks

This brief is the result of one of eight Deep Dive Foresight Studies in the project ‘European R&I Foresight and Public Engagement for Horizon Europe’ conducted by the Foresight on Demand consortium for the European Commission. During the spring of 2023, an expert team identified factors of change and organised two scenario and one policy implications workshops also engaging experts from academia, business and public administration around Europe. The process was also supported by discussions in the Horizon Europe Foresight Network. The complete policy brief and further information about the project are available here.

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