Just transition in land use and agriculture: a discussion paper

This discussion paper is intended to support engagement on a just transition for the land use and agriculture sectors. Building on this engagement, a draft targeted action plan and route map (late 23/24) will outline the key steps to delivering a fair transition.


This paper is designed to support discussion on the development of a Just Transition Plan for Land Use and Agriculture. It sets out a summary of current context, commitments, targets and policy ambitions.

We understand that the way we own, use, and manage our land is fundamental to how we live in Scotland; that in order to achieve a nature-positive, net zero Scotland, our land and sea will need to balance competing demands and will require negotiation and compromise from all. We also recognise the importance of Scotland's farming sector and that their continued success will need to be a fundamental part of ensuring a just transition to net zero.

The net zero challenge

Scotland has committed to become a net zero greenhouse gas emitting nation by 2045, with interim targets of 75% by 2030 and 90% by 2040, (against 1990 baseline levels). These ambitious targets require a collective effort with all corners of society playing their part, including governments, businesses, organisations, communities, and households. These are national targets, not sector based targets. No one area, be that land use and agriculture, transport or the built environment and construction for example, has been set the task of achieving net zero or 'carbon neutrality' in isolation. This is about Scotland as a nation achieving this feat. Indeed, in a net zero Scotland certain sectors will continue to produce greenhouse gas emissions; this is unavoidable and will include our agricultural food production system and some elements of wider land use.

What Scotland as a whole must strive to achieve is the eradication of avoidable greenhouse gas emissions and the reduction of unavoidable emissions to a minimum. The residual emissions must then be in balance with the amount of carbon dioxide that can be removed from the atmosphere, which is currently through land use and agriculture, for example by tree planting and maintaining healthy peatlands.

The role of land use and agriculture

Within this wider national challenge, land use and agriculture has a unique role. Alongside the other emitting areas of Scotland, it has been tasked with reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike other sectors however, land use and agriculture has been asked to deliver this while producing food and, at the same time working on behalf of all of Scotland to remove additional carbon from the atmosphere by providing the 'carbon sink' to help balance left-over emissions from our daily lives. We also recognise that Scotland's food and drink industry is closely related to our land use and agriculture sectors. It creates wealth and important employment opportunities, and will be of key importance as we move towards a net zero economy.

As Scotland moves forward on this journey, we will need to remove more carbon from the atmosphere through actions such as increasing the number of trees that are planted and the restoration of degraded (unhealthy) peat bogs. This will result in increasing pressure on land use and agriculture in Scotland to deliver an ever-increasing service to the nation from a finite area of land. To achieve this, a balanced and national understanding will have to be sought, trade-offs explored, compromises reached, and the agricultural sector empowered to lead, to ensure that our land use and agricultural systems can deliver on this requirement whilst meeting the various other demands placed upon them.

Demands such as:

  • food production
  • nature restoration
  • energy generation
  • the provision of land and timber to build homes and communities
  • access to places where people from both our urban and rural communities can go for exercise, recreation and to connect with our environment and history

As set out in Scotland's third Land Use Strategy and the Climate Change Plan update of 2020, Scotland cannot stop delivering on demands like food production and it cannot look to sacrifice areas like nature restoration in the quest for net zero. These pressures already exist but will become more acute as this journey progresses. Thus the transition that is required within land use and agriculture is one of evolution, of finding the balance to deliver on these ongoing demands. An example of this evolution can be seen in the Sustainable and regenerative farming - next steps: statement, where work is underway to transform how we support farming and food production in Scotland to help us become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Indeed, farmers and land managers will need to be empowered to play a pioneering role in helping us meet the multiple demands of becoming a net zero nation, and there must therefore be an emphasis on supporting their livelihoods and wellbeing.

It is widely acknowledged that this evolution and the changes required will not always be easy to achieve and those touched by the transition must be empowered to lead on this journey. We recognise that the nation will be relying on some, such as farmers and land managers, to bear a greater share of the work, but they will be supported in return.

Through co-development with communities, these changes could result in a better quality of life, fair work, resilient rural, coastal and island communities, and a better natural environment for future generations.

The Land Use and Agriculture Just Transition Plan will look to complement ambitions and actions of other Government plans and strategies such as Scotland's Climate Change Plan, Adaptation Plan, (forthcoming) Rural Delivery Plan, (forthcoming) Bioenergy Action Plan and National Island's Plan, as well as Scotland's Environment, Biodiversity and Forestry Strategies to name but a few. It will help to provide a wider evidence base as we look to understand how upcoming work such as the Agriculture Reform Programme can help deliver a just transition, whilst demonstrating the links with the other Just Transition Plans in areas such as built environment and construction and transport.

A just transition is a national mission. It is not something the Scottish Government can do alone, nor do we hold all the answers. It will need input, collaboration, and action from people throughout Scotland.

We need your input to make sure we are considering all aspects of the transition – not only for the land use and agricultural, but also for wider rural, island and coastal communities. Please tell us about, and help to identify, opportunities, gaps, and solutions.


Email: justtransition@gov.scot

Back to top