Greenhouse gas emissions from global agriculture are increasing at around 1% per annum, yet substantial cuts in emissions are needed across all sectors1. The challenge of reducing agricultural emissions is particularly acute, because the reductions achievable by changing farming practices are limited2,3 and are hampered by rapidly rising food demand4,5. Here we assess the technical mitigation potential offered by land sparing—increasing agricultural yields, reducing farmland area and actively restoring natural habitats on the land spared6. Restored habitats can sequester carbon and can offset emissions from agriculture. Using the UK as an example, we estimate net emissions in 2050 under a range of future agricultural scenarios. We find that a land-sparing strategy has the technical potential to achieve significant reductions in net emissions from agriculture and land-use change. Coupling land sparing with demand-side strategies to reduce meat consumption and food waste can further increase the technical mitigation potential—however, economic and implementation considerations might limit the degree to which this technical potential could be realized in practice.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. R. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  2. 2.

    et al. Developing greenhouse gas marginal abatement cost curves for agricultural emissions from crops and soils in the UK. Agric. Syst. 103, 198–209 (2010).

  3. 3.

    & Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture: avoiding trivial solutions to a global problem. Land Use Policy 29, 727–736 (2012).

  4. 4.

    , , & Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 20260–20264 (2011).

  5. 5.

    & World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision (FAO, 2012).

  6. 6.

    , , & Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science 307, 550–555 (2005).

  7. 7.

    Climate Change Act 2008 (The Stationery Office, 2008).

  8. 8.

    Livestock production: recent trends, future prospects. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 2853–2867 (2010).

  9. 9.

    The case of the missing wheat. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 021002 (2012).

  10. 10.

    , & Agricultural research, productivity, and food prices in the long run. Science 325, 1209–1210 (2009).

  11. 11.

    , , , & Explaining the decline in UK agricultural productivity growth. J. Agric. Econ. 55, 343–366 (2004).

  12. 12.

    et al. UK Greenhouse Gas Inventory, 1990 to 2011: Annual Report for Submission Under the Framework Convention on Climate Change (DEFRA, 2013).

  13. 13.

    2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories, Prepared by the National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme (eds Eggleston, H. S., Buendia, L., Miwa, K., Ngara, T & Tanabe, K.) (IGES, 2006).

  14. 14.

    et al. Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation. Nature Clim. Change 4, 924–929 (2014).

  15. 15.

    Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (eds Field, C. B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  16. 16.

    , , & Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health. Lancet 370, 1253–1263 (2007).

  17. 17.

    , & A systematic review of the effectiveness of food taxes and subsidies to improve diets: understanding the recent evidence. Nutr. Rev. 72, 551–565 (2014).

  18. 18.

    et al. Bringing ecosystem services into economic decision-making: land use in the United Kingdom. Science 341, 45–50 (2013).

  19. 19.

    et al. Cattle ranching intensification in Brazil can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by sparing land from deforestation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 7236–7241 (2014).

  20. 20.

    , , , & Green Revolution research saved an estimated 18 to 27 million hectares from being brought into agricultural production. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 8363–8368 (2013).

  21. 21.

    & Modeling climate change and agriculture: an introduction to the special issue. Agric. Econ. 45, 1–2 (2014).

  22. 22.

    Soils and climate change. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 4, 539–544 (2012).

  23. 23.

    et al. Combating Climate Change: A Role for UK Forests. An Assessment of the Potential of the UK’s Trees and Woodlands to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change (The Stationery Office, 2009).

  24. 24.

    , , & The environmental impact of climate change adaptation on land use and water quality. Nature Clim. Change 5, 255–260 (2015).

  25. 25.

    & Food security and sustainable intensification. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369, 20120273 (2014).

  26. 26.

    Global Forest Resources Assessment: 2010 Main Report (FAO, 2010).

  27. 27.

    , & What conservationists need to know about farming. Proc. R. Soc. B 279, 2714–2724 (2012).

  28. 28.

    , , & Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation: land sharing and land sparing compared. Science 333, 1289–1291 (2011).

  29. 29.

    , & Identifying potential environmental impacts of large-scale deployment of dedicated bioenergy crops in the UK. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 13, 271–290 (2009).

  30. 30.

    et al. Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature 490, 254–257 (2012).

Download references


This research was funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative Collaborative Fund for Conservation, and we thank its major sponsor Arcadia. We thank J. Bruinsma for the provision of demand data, the CEH for the provision of soil data and J. Spencer for invaluable discussions. A.L. was supported by a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. T.B., K.G. and J.P. acknowledge BBSRC funding through grant BBS/E/C/00005198.

Author information


  1. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing St, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK

    • Anthony Lamb
    • , Rhys Green
    • , Tim Kasoar
    • , Ben Phalan
    • , Erasmus K. H. J. zu Ermgassen
    •  & Andrew Balmford
  2. RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy SG19 2DL, UK

    • Rhys Green
    • , Ellie Crane
    •  & Rob Field
  3. Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) at the Society, Economy and Environment Institute (SEE-I), Department of Politics, The University of Exeter, Mail Room, The Old Library, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter EX4 4SB, UK

    • Ian Bateman
  4. Forestry Commission, Alice Holt, Farnham, Surrey GU10 4LH, UK

    • Mark Broadmeadow
  5. Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 2JQ, UK

    • Toby Bruce
    • , Keith Goulding
    •  & John Pickett
  6. School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, California 92093-0519, USA

    • Jennifer Burney
  7. Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EA, UK

    • Pete Carey
    •  & Howard Griffiths
  8. School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, Deiniol Rd., Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, UK

    • David Chadwick
  9. Scottish Food Security Alliance-Crops, ClimateXChange & Institute of Biological and Environmental Science, University of Aberdeen, 23 St Machar Drive, Aberdeen AB24 3UU, UK

    • Astley Hastings
    •  & Pete Smith
  10. ADAS UK Ltd, Boxworth, Cambridge CB23 4NN, UK

    • Daniel Kindred
  11. ClimateXChange & Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JG, UK

    • Eileen Wall


  1. Search for Anthony Lamb in:

  2. Search for Rhys Green in:

  3. Search for Ian Bateman in:

  4. Search for Mark Broadmeadow in:

  5. Search for Toby Bruce in:

  6. Search for Jennifer Burney in:

  7. Search for Pete Carey in:

  8. Search for David Chadwick in:

  9. Search for Ellie Crane in:

  10. Search for Rob Field in:

  11. Search for Keith Goulding in:

  12. Search for Howard Griffiths in:

  13. Search for Astley Hastings in:

  14. Search for Tim Kasoar in:

  15. Search for Daniel Kindred in:

  16. Search for Ben Phalan in:

  17. Search for John Pickett in:

  18. Search for Pete Smith in:

  19. Search for Eileen Wall in:

  20. Search for Erasmus K. H. J. zu Ermgassen in:

  21. Search for Andrew Balmford in:


A.B., A.L. and R.G. conceived the study. A.L. conducted the analysis and prepared the manuscript. A.H., D.K., E.W., K.G., P.C., P.S. and R.F. supplied data. All authors contributed in the writing and editing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anthony Lamb.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading