Landscape Alteration

Sarah Simon

14 min Read Time | November 20th 2022

Key Takeaways

Anthropogenic activities such as settlements, mining, and forestry activities are major drivers of landscape alterations. This causes cascading ecosystem changes and regime shifts in ecosystem functioning.

When assessing the impact of landscape alterations, make sure to focus on the environmental impacts to contextualise the impact (i.e., habitat fragmentation and loss, erosion, weathering, and others). Social impacts are covered in a separate topic.

Make sure to analyse the depth, breadth, and persistence of the impact.

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What is it?

“Landscape alteration implies habitat fragmentation, habitat loss (i.e. reduction in the total amount of the habitat), habitat isolation and modification of the structure of the landscape.”

Landscape alteration is caused by a number of activities from different industries. The main anthropogenic activities include agricultural expansion and ranching, mining, exploration, urbanization, project developments such as the building of roads, dams and reservoirs, and others.

The world has lost a third of arable land due to erosion or pollution as global food consumption, industrialisation, and urbanisation soar.

Changes to the land can speed up natural processes such as weathering and erosion. Deforestation can lead to soil and water erosion. Air pollution, causing acid rain, can cause weathering or even break down the Earth’s surface.

Long-lasting impacts, such as oil spills, fertilizers, wastewater, etc. can effectively change the landscape as well. Ecological devastations occur when oil or other toxic substances leak onto land and destroy habitats and suffocate plants, eventually impacting water bodies.

Land use for agricultural purposes has been shown to displace habitats, ultimately leading to biodiversity loss, and ecosystem service degradation while also destroying landscapes.


SDG 15 Life on Land

SDG choice

✅ SDG: 15

✅ Category: Processes

✅ ILG: Healthy Ecosystems

Data Points & Units

Data we are looking for:

  • What are the company’s activities that are provoking the impact;

  • How is the landscape being affected by these activities (e.g., fragmentation, habitat and biodiversity loss, etc.);

  • A quantification of these activities, for example kms of railroads or pipelines, amount of energy generated, number of dams, etc.;

  • By how much is the environment impacted? You need to include quantitative data. You can use proxies for this;

  • Since when it is happening;

  • For how long the impact is likely to persist;

  • Where is it happening? What are the environmental peculiarities of the areas where the impact is happening? Have species been directly affected over time? 

Some definitions:

  • Disclosed: when the data is directly disclosed by the company, i.e., we did not do any calculations/estimations to obtain the figure

  • Estimated: when we have calculated the figure

  • Complete: when the data represents 100% of the company’s operations

  • Partial: when the data is given for only a portion of its operations (not 100%)


  • We want to have homogenous and comparable units:
    • Material used: tonnes (t) or cubic meters (m3)

    • Land used: hectares (ha)

    • Linear length: kilometers (km)

    • Energy: GWh

  • If the figures are given in tonnes or metric tons in the report, then we can report them as it is but we will write them as tonnes in the analysis for consistency -> no need to convert anything -> 1 tonne = 1 metric ton

  • If the figures are given in tons in the report, then we must check whether the company has used the metric system or not (check whether the company has used kg, km,°C, etc.);
    • If yes, then tons actually mean tonnes -> we can report the figures as it is but write them as tonnes in the analysis for consistency -> no need to convert anything

    • If not, then tons mean US tons -> we will have to convert it to tonnes (source)


  • Oil land disturbance: 1 Mn t -> 1,314 ha -> source page 5 and to convert units: Conversion Tools.

  • Natural gas land disturbance: 1 Mn m3 -> 1.2 ha -> source page 5 and to convert units: Conversion Tools.

  • Palm oil land used: 1 t -> 2.8 ha -> source.

  • Timber land use: depends on the timber product and trees planted. Here is a useful proxy to start. Please note that this might not be relevant for all cases: 207 t of timber per ha -> source.

  • Meat land use: Land used for meat products varies depending on the meat type. You can find the proxies here.

  • Mines/metals: Open pit mines- 5.05 ha/Mn t of ore; underground mines-11.85 ha/Mn t of ore. Please make sure to use the amount of ore mined, not the final amount of minerals the company used.

  • Electric Utilities & Power generation: coal, natural gas and nuclear 5 ha/Mw; solar 18 ha/Mw; wind 29 ha/Mw and hydro 128 ha/Mw -> source page 1.

    Impact assessment

    The topic discusses the impacts of human activities on the landscape, e.g. habitat fragmentation and loss, erosion, and biodiversity loss.

    The introduction should be tailored to the context and type of impact being treated.

    The core analysis should capture the company’s impact in relation to the broader issue by providing the following information:

    • If applicable, how much of the commodity did the company source? This is likely to be reported in tonnes. Or, if the landscape alternation is linked to a significant event or chain of events as a result of the company’s core operations, document what took place by quantifying the impact.
    • Please make sure to estimate the land used by the company related to its procurement of products.
    • Evaluate the environmental impacts: how are the habitats, ecosystems, and plants affected? Did the land-use change cause soil and water erosion or contamination?
    • Try to be as specific as you can: where are the changes in landscape taking place, and since when? How long has the impact persisted?
    • If data allows, what are the environmental peculiarities of the areas where the impact is happening?

    No matter what the company’s activities are, you may go back to the Logical Model if needed.

    Common mistakes:

    • Not treating the main activity of the company or not being comprehensive about its activities

    • Mixing other types of environmental impacts (e.g. water pollution, toxic waste) rather than discussing landscape impacts

    • Lack of quantitative data about the actual impact

    • Only quantifying the companies’ activities and not the impact.

      • E.g. only saying that the company has, for example, 44 wells but not mentioning how much this amount of wells is likely to disturb.

    • Discussing social impacts

    Also, ask yourselves the following questions:

    1/ The breadth of the impact

    • Is the impact local, national, or global?

    • How many species or people are concerned?

    2/ The depth of the impact

    • Is the biodiversity or people concerned deeply affected, or does the issue just marginally impact them?

    • Are the changes brought by the issue profoundly changing society or the planet?

    3/ The persistence of the impact

    • How long would the impact described last for? Months? Years? Decades?

    • How reversible is the impact described in the impact analysis? Can it be easily stopped/extended?

    Find more about evaluating the scale of the impact in Step 5: Assess scale and value.

    Additional Information specific to Extractives & Minerals Processing industries

    Oil & Gas - Exploration & Production

    The exploration and production (E&P) industry’s activities can have significant impacts on landscapes. Examples include alteration through land use for exploration, production, disposing of drilling and associated wastes, and decommissioning of onshore and offshore wells.

    Coal Operations

    Surface mining and mountaintop removal can alter the landscape, removing vegetation. Acid mine drainage is particularly significant: it is highly acidic water, rich in heavy metals, formed when surface and shallow subsurface water comes into contact with coal mining overburden and can have harmful effects on plants.

    Metals & Mining

    The development, operation, closure, and remediation of mines can have a range of impacts on biodiversity, such as alterations of landscape, vegetation removal. Acid rock drainage is a particularly significant risk: it is highly acidic water, rich in heavy metals, formed when surface and shallow subsurface water come into contact with mining overburden.

    Construction Materials

    Construction materials companies often operate their own quarries close to processing facilities. Quarrying requires the removal of vegetation and topsoil. It also requires the blasting and crushing of underlying stone deposits. The process can lead to permanent alterations of the landscape.


    1. Check if the assigned analysis has more recent data (we require the latest data available)

    NO: do not refresh the analysis and please report it

    YES: Move to step 2

    2. Check the intro: Is it up to standard? Are sources working? Is data current and relevant?

    YES: do not refresh the introduction

    NO: move to step 3

    3. Check if the most relevant activities are being discussed

    YES: stay with the same activities and update the note with the most recent data

    NO: move to step 4

    4. Find the most relevant activities and include the most recent data.

    5. Estimate land disturbed and/or used.

    6. Include any direct impact.

    7. Fix the conclusion

    8. Update the data points as per the available data.

    9. Fix the Headline


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