Global environmental sustainability - Prizewinning work of Eric Lambin

January 20, 2021

Professor Eric Lambin, an environmental scientist and geographer, was a winner of the 2019 Blue Planet Prize, which recognized his pioneering research on land use. He also holds teaching roles at Belgium's Université catholique de Louvain and the USA's Stanford University.

How have we made use of the earth's surface, and how has that usage changed? Lambin began his research from a geographical standpoint, but as it developed, he started asking questions about the sustainable use of land and resources. He spoke to us about his latest findings, and explained what each of us can do to contribute to a sustainable society. He also had a message for those of us living in Japan. (Interview conducted on 16 Nov 2020)

Satellite data and fieldwork tie the stories of humanity together

Professor Eric Lambin ©
Professor Eric Lambin ©

Professor Eric Lambin, an environmental scientist and geographer, promotes sustainable land use through research that combines natural and social sciences. In the mid-1980s, when it wasn't clear how best to use satellite data, he developed the idea of combining it with research on human behavior in the surveyed areas. He rode around a motorbike to visit various regions personally. His work revealed how the Earth's land is used, and how humanity and the natural environment influence each other.

Lambin reminisced about the project. "When I started my PhD study in 1985, it was the early years when Earth observation satellites for civil applications became available. At that time they were only used to monitor natural resources: vegetation, soil, geology, water. But I was much more interested in using the satellite data to understand how people interact with the environment. I went to the Sahel on the southern fringe of the Sahara. I bought a small motorbike, and I traveled for 3-4 months, visiting all these villages, talking to the farmers, trying to understand how they were using land. And I was always trying to associate the stories they told me with what I saw on the satellite images."

Using a combination of satellite data and fieldwork to research human land use was a novel idea. Lambin explained where it had come from.

"I spent my childhood living in the countryside, next to a big forest, and I was spending a lot of my free time hiking. I've always been interested in the landscapes that we have in Belgium. They have a long history, and I've always been fascinated by how they are organized. At the age of 18, I started to travel a lot. I traveled on my own, all over the world with a small backpack, hitchhiking. I was always observing the landscape and talking to the farmers, trying to understand how they interact with their land. I suspect that this experience as a traveler greatly influenced me to become a researcher. One of my hobbies was, and still is, mountain climbing--I went to the Alps every year."

On his hiking trips, Lambin would enjoy a bird's eye view from the top of a mountain--but he would also go down to the valleys and talk to the farmers. It is interesting that he already did a similar thing to what he does in his research today.

Creating a new scientific field and community
A global community of scientists

Lambin conducting research in Cameroon, 2015
Lambin conducting research in Cameroon, 2015

One of Lambin's achievements is his work with an international project called LUCC (Land-Use and Land-Cover Change). From 1999 to 2005 he served as Chair, making a significant contribution to global land use research. What inspired him to get involved?

"Land use change is clearly a global problem, but all the research tended to be quite isolated. Every researcher was working in their own place, and yet we were all confronted with the same research questions, the same methods, et cetera. So the idea was simply to bring all these researchers together, and exchange information on our results and methods so that they can be integrated at a global scale."

One of LUCC's most notable achievements was establishing international cooperation to facilitate the measurement of land degradation and deforestation. By establishing a consistent system of measurements, they clearly demonstrated that those problems aren't local--they are fast becoming a global issue, and they exert a significant influence on issues like climate change and biodiversity. LUCC's groundbreaking discoveries had wide-ranging implications. They shed light on the varied causes of land degradation, and led to the development of modelling framework for producing scenarios of future change under certain policies.

"Maybe the most important achievement was that we created a real scientific community around land use change. In the past it was not recognized as a discipline, or even as an interesting topic, and now it's clearly identified as one discipline. It's called land system science. There are journals, there are meetings, there are networks of scientists who talk to each other every week, or every month. There's a real global scientific community around that topic, and that community has thousands of scientists all over the world."

Multiple policies tailored to individual parties

Lambin was interested in how residents of an area decide how land will be used. He started investigating. As he learned more, he began searching for ways to influence that decision making, in order to introduce more sustainable land use.

"I looked at the national public policies that influence land use. But I realized very quickly that with economic globalization, national policies have a very limited scope, because a lot of land use change occurs beyond the borders of countries."

Lambin gives an example. "More than 40% of tropical deforestation is associated with the global trade in just four commodities. They are palm oil, soy, beef and timber. This is global trade, so countries have little control. That is why I'm studying the public policies at the national level, and the sustainable sourcing commitments of the private sector--when the private sector commits to only purchase commodities that have not caused deforestation or major pollution. I study how this can be influenced to reduce deforestation or land degradation."

Lambin's current research involves problem solving on a bigger scale. Anti-deforestation policies and strategies have been successful at a local level, but he sees the expansion of those tactics as the true challenge.

"The problem is how to upscale solutions, not to a small fraction of the sector--one or two percent--but to the whole sector. All the research shows that it's really important to align the interests of the public, private and civil society actors. It's very important to recognize that in every sector, we have actors with very different motivations; very different behavior. That's why it's important to design policies with multiple interventions."

Even in the same region and community, progressives may be motivated with incentives, others may respond well to information sharing and transparency, while laggards may best be swayed with command-and-control policies--the threat of sanctions. Lambin learned that by combining complementary measures and mobilizing multiple parties, the scale of the solutions can be expanded.

50% of reforestation is offset by "exported deforestation"

A satellite image of Bhutan
A satellite image of Bhutan

One of the few remaining natural habitats of chimpanzees is a conservation area in Uganda. Lambin with a team of colleagues conducted an experiment nearby, in which farmers from 90 randomly selected villages were paid 25 dollars a year per hectare of forest they left untouched. As a comparison, 90 other villages were not paid. The villages being paid reduced their deforestation level by more than 50%. It became a valuable illustration of the effectiveness of incentives. However, when the experiment ended and payments stopped, deforestation went back to its former level. The unfortunate reality is that effective measures can't be continued or scaled up without organizations putting them into practice, and money paying for them.

That example seems to show that prospects are dim for the expansion of sustainable land use. Lambin looked for the positives, but concluded that "as often in life, there's always good news and bad news."

"The good news is that countries and territories such as Vietnam, Costa Rica and Bhutan have increased forest cover. The bad news is that our research has shown for the first time that while they were protecting their forest, they were increasing the import of timber and/or of other forest products from other countries. So, in a sense, they partly exported their deforestation elsewhere. The additional import of timber is equivalent to about 50% of the reforestation. A lot of policies are focusing on the supply side. But of course if the consumption remains the same, globally, then if it's not produced in Vietnam, Bhutan or Costa Rica, it has to be produced somewhere else. So that's why working on the consumption side is also very important."

Lambin's research showed the importance of measures targeting the whole supply chain. It highlighted the usefulness of forest certification, and led to global support for its introduction.

Those of us living in Japan can be somewhat ignorant about land use issues. However, timber from countries where deforestation is occurring, as well as products made from that timber, are of course widely in circulation in Japan. As consumers, we need to reconsider our purchases, and opt for items with a small ecological footprint.

However, Lambin says that retail initiatives are the most important element. If retailers make commitments to only sell products with a low ecological footprint, then consumers will naturally begin using those items. It's true that environmentally friendly products, including Fairtrade items, are increasingly sold at large retailers such as supermarkets and shopping malls. Lambin acknowledges that some large retailers are making commitments to sustainability, but adds a word of caution. "The present situation is far from being satisfactory. But we have no other choice than to believe there is a solution, and to support for conscientious retailers."

Clues to sustainability in Japanese traditional life

Lambin's research on solution upscaling is ongoing, but he also has a new project on the horizon. In May 2021, he will become a member of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors of the European Commission.

Lambin feels that winning the 2019 Blue Planet Prize gave him "more international credibility and status," and sees his appointment as a "a direct result of receiving the prize." He describes his upcoming role. "My work will cover science/policy interface--how to influence policy makers to adopt more evidence-based policies. It will be a new challenge for me.

" Traditionally, Japanese people hold living in harmony with nature in high esteem. Creating a future on this tradition will be one path. As with all the countries in the world, this is driven by the young generation--because it's about their future. I think the Japanese have great respect for families. So, a story on the future of kids is the kind of narrative that might speak to the Japanese people."

Lambin will continue his research, while endeavoring to provide a link between science and politics. His work surely has a lot more to teach us. Less than a decade remains until 2030, by which time the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) should be implemented. "The first step is to cultivate hope and envision a bright future. Only with strong will and determination can we achieve change," he says.

Lambin's words light the way to a more sustainable future. But it will require all of us to come together, and play our part.


Professor Eric Lambin
Université catholique de Louvain
Stanford University

Professor Lambin uses satellite remote monitoring technology and an innovative time series method to study land use change at a global scale, its effect on the ecosystem, and the effectiveness of land use policies. By combining that with socio-economics, his work reveals the connection these issues have with economic activity. It has had a significant effect on public and private land use policies aimed at forest conservation, and it gives a scientific basis to the promotion of forest certification systems, as well as sustainable purchasing and procurement.

Lambin has made a significant contribution towards changes in human behavior and land management that will lead to an improvement in the sustainability of economic activity at a global scale. He was awarded the 2019 Blue Planet Prize.

Mini-biography video of Prof. Eric Lambin

An introduction video of Prof. Lambin shown at the 2019 Blue Planet Prize Award Ceremony.

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