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Ulster University is among three local organisations awarded a share of a £6.5 million government grant to establish a ‘Land Use for Net Zero’ (LUNZ) Hub that will seek to bridge the gap between science and policy to achieve net zero by 2050.

Ulster University, the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and Queen’s University Belfast are members of a winning consortium of 34 research and stakeholder organisations that will come together to develop long-term, sustainable solutions in land use that produce food, grow the economy, and cut carbon emissions.

The LUNZ Hub, co-led by The James Hutton Institute and the University of Leicester with £6.5m funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will provide UK and devolved governments with timely evidence around land use, from renewable energy to soil carbon and green finance, to help drive the land transformations needed to achieve net zero by 2050.

Agriculture and land use have a major impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as a wide range of other environmental, societal and economic outcomes, but progress towards decarbonisation is lagging behind other sectors.

Launched in January 2024, the LUNZ hub will play a pivotal role in helping to communicate more widely the critical importance of land and how it’s used as a major carbon sink or source.

In Northern Ireland, the project is co-led by Professor Jim Harkin, Head of Ulster University’s School of Computing, Engineering and Intelligent Systems, who will lead the Topic Advisory Group on Digital Opportunities.

Professor Harkin is joined by Professor Elizabeth Magowan (NI Hub lead), Director of Sustainable Agri-Food Sciences Division at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, and Professor Sharon Huws, Director of Research at the School of Biological Sciences and Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast.

Professor Jim Harkin, Head of the School of Computing, Engineering and Intelligent Systems at Ulster University, commented:

“We are thrilled that Ulster University will play a role, alongside our other local co-leads, in influencing policy on the road to net zero by addressing issues and making use of our expertise in data science, artificial intelligence, soil carbon and renewable energy.”

The establishment of the LUNZ hub follows the recent declaration at COP28 on sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems and climate action which stated the UK government’s intent to act on land use and climate change by increasing public financial support and scaling science-based solutions, and LUNZ will be a key conduit for these actions.

Achieving transformational change in land management will depend on government access to world-class research and innovation and a novel approach to collaboration across a variety of critical stakeholders.

Hub Co-Lead Professor Lee-Ann Sutherland of The James Hutton Institute, explained:

“The science behind land use is highly complex.  It is influenced by a range of economic, social and environmental factors, and complicated further by a changing evidence base, novel market forces, the emergence of new data and models, and disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence.

"Our aim is to bridge the gap between researchers and policy makers and our work will be focused on meeting specific policy-maker needs, giving them the evidence they need in the format and timeframe they need it. Our Consortium has developed a series of innovative mechanisms to do just that – an Agile Policy Centre, Net Zero Futures Platform, and Creative Methods Lab – each tailored to generate clear, robust answers to urgent questions.”

Equally novel is the approach to stakeholder participation in the Hub, as Hub Co-lead, Professor Heiko Balzter of the University of Leicester, explained:

“Creating a fair, realistic path to Net Zero in the land use sector can only be achieved with the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders throughout the process– to provide their expertise, share the Hub’s outputs and ensure its proposals work in practice as well as theory.

"Our consortium reflects this – ranging from those at the cutting edge of climate change modelling to farmers groups, advisory organisations, non-governmental organisations and an arts collective.  Their range and profile will ensure the Hub’s impact extends throughout society – so everyone can engage in land use transformation – from the food they buy to their holiday, housing and investment decisions.”

At the heart of the challenge is understanding how transformative change can be achieved and predicting the impact of proposed approaches against multiple environmental, societal and economic outcomes.  A central strand of the LUNZ Hub’s approach will be the development of plausible and innovative net zero scenarios and associated pathways – novel tools based on advanced modelling methodologies that can predict the impacts of different policy interventions across a variety of metrics.