Governing land use to achieve sustainable outcomes is challenging, because land systems manifest complex land-use spill-overs. Land-use spill-overs are processes by which land-use changes or direct interventions in land use (such as through policies or new technologies) in one place affect land use in another place.

This article is an editorial to a special issue of the journal of Environmental Research Letters entitled “Focus on leakage: Informing land-use governance in a tele-coupled world”. The issue builds on discussions in an international expert workshop conducted in Berlin in November 2017 to explore innovative ways to improve our understanding of how governance interventions, new technologies and other factors can affect land-use change both directly and indirectly through spill-overs.

The editorial starts by defining and clarifying the relationships between four concepts: land-use spill-over; indirect land-use change, a form of spill-over where land-use change in one place is caused by land-use change in another place; leakage, a form of land-use spill-over caused by an environmental policy (e.g. a conservation or restoration intervention) where the spill-over reduces the overall benefits and effectiveness of the policy; and displacement processes.

It then summarizes the individual contributions of this special issue and concludes with lessons learned as well as directions for future research.