Agricultural nature conservation in the Netherlands: three lenses on transition pathways

J.V. Zwartkruis, A.F. Hof

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractOther research output


Context In order to achieve internationally agreed sustainability goals related to, for instance, climate change and biodiversity, transitions away from business as usual are required. The way in which land is used plays an important role in such sustainability transitions, as many environmental, social, and economic sustainability goals relate to land use. Land use is responsible for a large share of greenhouse gas emissions, with CO2 emissions from forestry and other land use contributing by about 10% to global emissions (IPCC 2014). Furthermore, changes in land use are crucial for achieving biodiversity targets, such as agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Finally, land use plays an important role in providing food, as food production is largely land based. Sustainability transitions in the way society uses land involve a vast number of actors and instances on very different levels, from individuals over companies or social groups to national or supranational systems. Hence, they are complex in many ways, and can be characterized by a large number of degrees of freedom for development, path dependency, historicity, and other influences (Berg 2013; Manson 2001; Mittleton-Kelly 2003). Therefore, it is more than unlikely that one scientific school, method or discipline can capture and understand the whole antecedents, prerequisites, processes and outcomes that relate to sustainability transitions. Therefore, methods and procedures to interpret sustainability transitions from different scientific angles should be applied. Combining the findings made by different approaches may then lead to a more encompassing and more valid understanding of the processes, outcomes, and impacts of sustainability transitions. They may thus also produce more appropriate and legitimate implications for practice and policy (Dewulf et al. 2005). In this paper we experiment with such an approach by using three methodological lenses on transitions to study the development around agricultural nature conservation in the Netherlands, with the aim to create a more complete view on the role of agricultural nature conservation in the broader land-use context and the extent to which developments around agricultural nature conservation help to reach the goals set for biodiversity. Approach The three methodological lenses applied in this paper are socio-technical analysis in a multi-level perspective (MLP), integrated assessment modelling (IAM) and initiative-based learning (IBL). As discussed by Turnheim et al. (2015) and Geels et al. (2016) each of these lenses has its own strengths and weaknesses, and combining these provides a basis for a more robust and complete analysis of sustainable transitions pathways. In a first, exploratory attempt, we compare and contrast results derived from the three research approaches from which we deduct important touching points and areas of potential interactions in further research on sustainability transitions. Research questions & findings Our research question is whether a multi-method approach creates a more complete view on the role of agricultural nature conservation in the broader land-use context and the extent to which developments around agricultural nature conservation help to reach the goals set for biodiversity. We argue that this is indeed the case (see Figure). MLP analysis delves deeper in how agricultural nature conservation, as a particular form of multifunctional land use, has been developing over time and can shed light on how changes can and should occur and what barriers and opportunities influence developments in that direction. IBL provides insight into how agricultural nature conservation is organised in practice. IAM analysis, finally, provides insights in the conditions under which multifunctional land use can be aligned with several global sustainability goals. Contributions Although the three perspectives used in this study have different time spans and focus on different developments, the previous section shows that there are linkages visible. IBL analyses mainly addresses the stubborn reality of the social practices and the interactive patterns of stakeholders. IBL cases can be an addition to MLP analyses as they can provide hints for future developments within a regime or for new configurations within or after a transition. Practices, products and institutions developed and observed within the initiative may e.g. work as role models. IBL can provide IAM with narratives for future development as pre-figurations: What will happen if a specific innovation scales up? In this case the initiative would be used to calibrate the parameters of a model. Moreover, observations from initiatives may be used to explain the possibility that model outcomes will be reached, based on what is happening in practice. In this way, IBL can also help to judge the feasibility of future IAM projections. MLP captures reality in a framework with multiple levels and multiple actors and systems. MLP could therefore draw implications on actual chances for change, timelines required and mechanisms in place (e.g. non-linear feedback in a locked-in environment). MLP can therefore validate the assumptions of IAMs, and sets the cases in IBL into a more encompassing timeline so that their role and significance in relation to past and present occurrences e.g. with regard to regimes and transitions becomes clearer. IAM can provide supporting narrative storylines, context, and set goals to MLP, i.e. set an on-going or past transition into reference of broader approaches, future trends or projected development. Similarly, IAM can, just like MLP but in a different way, provide context to IBL cases and initiatives. IAM can also be used to assess whether innovative ideas can be seen as parts of a solution, or whether they could be detrimental for certain sustainability targets on a larger scale. Moreover, IAM forecasts, e.g. on climate change, may work as motivators or set agendas to start initiatives or keep them going, as such projections tend to receive ample attention from policy makers and civil actors. Our analysis thus provided first insights into how the combination of different research approaches may improve the understanding of certain empirical observations related to sustainability transitions – in our case the Dutch land use domain. Based on the analysis we can state that MLP and IBL provide insights to what extent the measures that need to be taken in order to reach the goals as defined in IAM, are realistic based on current practices on the local level. Regarding transitions from the single approaches already yield important insights, but a combined perspective caters for a deeper understanding of the underlying processes, reasons and motives and points towards potential future development and opportunities for intervention.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2016
EventRGS IBG Annual International Conference 2016 - Royal Geographical Society, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 30 Aug 20162 Sept 2016


ConferenceRGS IBG Annual International Conference 2016
Abbreviated titleRGS-IBG 2016
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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