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Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability


The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets under Agenda 2030 of the United Nations1,2 map a coherent global sustainability ambition at a level of detail general enough to garner consensus amongst nations3. However, achieving the global agenda will depend heavily on successful national-scale implementation4, which requires the development of effective science-driven targets3 tailored to specific national contexts1 and supported by strong national governance. Here we assess the feasibility of achieving multiple SDG targets at the national scale for the Australian land-sector. We scaled targets to three levels of ambition and two timeframes, then quantitatively explored the option space for target achievement under 648 plausible future environmental, socio-economic, technological and policy pathways using the Land-Use Trade-Offs (LUTO) integrated land systems model5,6. We show that target achievement is very sensitive to global efforts to abate emissions, domestic land-use policy, productivity growth rate, and land-use change adoption behaviour and capacity constraints. Weaker target-setting ambition resulted in higher achievement but poorer sustainability outcomes. Accelerating land-use dynamics after 2030 changed the targets achieved by 2050, warranting a longer-term view and greater flexibility in sustainability implementation. Simultaneous achievement of multiple targets is rare owing to the complexity of sustainability target implementation and the pervasive trade-offs in resource-constrained land systems7,8,9. Given that hard choices are needed, the land-sector must first address the essential food/fibre production, biodiversity and land degradation components of sustainability via specific policy pathways. It may also contribute to emissions abatement, water and energy targets by capitalizing on co-benefits. However, achieving targets relevant to the land-sector will also require substantial contributions from other sectors such as clean energy, food systems and water resource management. Nations require globally coordinated, national-scale, comprehensive, integrated, multi-sectoral analyses to support national target-setting that prioritizes efficient and effective sustainability interventions across societies, economies and environments.

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Figure 1: Contribution of Australia’s land-sector towards six nationally downscaled SDG targets.
Figure 2: Number of future pathways (of a total of 648 modelled) for Australia’s land-sector in which six national-scale sustainability targets (bioenergy not shown) were achieved at Weak, Moderate, and Ambitious levels by 2030.
Figure 3: Parallel set plots of the option space of future pathways for Australia’s land-sector for achieving Moderate targets by 2030.


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We acknowledge support from CSIRO Agriculture and Food, and CSIRO Land and Water. We thank M. Nolan, J. Connor and the LUTO team. We thank M. Stafford-Smith for comments on the manuscript. This work contributes to both the Future Earth and Global Land Programme research agendas.

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Authors and Affiliations



Both authors designed the study, downscaled SDG targets, and assessed target achievement. Both authors contributed equally to the analysis, interpretation, figure design and writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lei Gao.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Reviewer Information Nature thanks H. Haberl, F. Humpenöder and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Schematic structure and scenario specification summary of the LUTO model.

This figure is reproduced, with permission, from figure 2 in ref. 6 (CSIRO). Marinoni et al. refers to ref. 38; GCM, global climate model; Mha, million hectares. The integration of the range of environmental and socio-economic data and models that combine to parameterize the LUTO integrated land systems model. ASRIS is the Australian Soil Resource Information System, ANUCLIM is a spatial climate modelling tool from the Australian National University, LCA is Life-Cycle Assessment, 3-PG2 is a forest stand growth model, APSIM is the Agricultural Production Systems Simulator crop model, and the Budyko framework enables the calculation of water use by trees. On the right are the various outputs possible from the model.

Extended Data Figure 2 A detailed illustration of the M3 central pathway, a single, mid-range pathway for Australia’s agricultural land from 2013 to 2050.

The central settings6 are detailed in the middle of the map. The map indicates potential land-use in 2050. The leftmost graphs show modelled trajectories for key LUTO model input variables including global carbon price; projected price multipliers for crops, livestock and oil; national electricity price projections; and mapped changes in temperature and rainfall. The rightmost charts show key LUTO model outputs including changes in the projected area of land-use and the six sustainability indicators used in this study over time. Weak (W), Moderate (M), and Ambitious (A) targets are also plotted for each indicator with the up- and down-arrowheads indicating whether target achievement occurs above or below the marker. Sustainability target achievement for 2030 and 2050 at all three levels of sustainability ambition is presented in the dot matrix in the middle of the map. Similar figures are available online for all 648 scenarios (

Extended Data Figure 3 Potential future land-use pathways for Australia’s agricultural land-use.

Graphs show the area of land-use on an annual time step from 2013 to 2050 as calculated by the LUTO model under all 648 future pathways, broadly coloured by global outlook (L1, M3, M2, H3). The maps show the average frequency of occurrence of each land-use in each grid cell at 1.1-km2 spatial resolution, calculated as the number of years the land-use occurs in each grid cell across all 648 modelled future pathways, expressed as a percentage of the total number of modelled years and pathways (that is, 38 years × 648 pathways). Grey indicates that the land-use did not occur in the grid cell. The full dataset is available online12.

Extended Data Figure 4 Number of future pathways for Australia’s agricultural land in which six national-scale sustainability targets were achieved by 2050.

(Bioenergy is not shown.) Horizontal bars indicate the total number of pathways in which each individual target was achieved. Vertical bars indicate the total number of pathways in which each possible combination of the six targets were achieved. The matrix of coloured dots indicates specific target combinations, with achievement (at Weak, Moderate and Ambitious levels) increasing from 0 to 6 targets, left to right. Active (not grey) dots indicate targets achieved in the combination, while inactive (grey) dots indicate targets not achieved in the combination. A total of 648 pathways was modelled.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 5 Parallel set plots of the option space for achieving Weak, Moderate and Ambitious targets by 2030 for the six sustainability indicators under future pathways for Australia’s land-sector.

The sustainability indicators are economic returns to land, food production, water resource use, biofuels production, emissions abatement, and biodiversity services. For each target, the orange lines indicate specific combinations of global outlook, domestic land-use policy, and key uncertainties under which target achievement occurs. The percentage for each dimension (in parentheses) and the horizontal thickness of the orange lines represent the number of pathways under which the corresponding targets were achieved, expressed as a proportion of the total number (648) of pathways.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 6 Parallel set plots of the option space for achieving Weak, Moderate and Ambitious targets by 2050 for the six sustainability indicators under future pathways for Australia’s land-sector.

As for Extended Data Fig. 5.

Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Mapping of land-use contributions to sustainability targets
Extended Data Table 2 Detailed specification of the various dimensions of the 648 pathways for Australia’s land-sector assessed in this study
Extended Data Table 3 Parameters used to specify Weak, Moderate, and Ambitious targets for biofuel production in 2030 and 2050
Extended Data Table 4 Parameters used to specify Weak, Moderate, and Ambitious targets for land-sector emissions abatement in 2030 and 2050

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Gao, L., Bryan, B. Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability. Nature 544, 217–222 (2017).

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