Satellite data show increasing leaf area of vegetation due to direct factors (human land-use management) and indirect factors (such as climate change, CO2 fertilization, nitrogen deposition and recovery from natural disturbances). Among these, climate change and CO2 fertilization effects seem to be the dominant drivers. However, recent satellite data (2000–2017) reveal a greening pattern that is strikingly prominent in China and India and overlaps with croplands world-wide. China alone accounts for 25% of the global net increase in leaf area with only 6.6% of global vegetated area. The greening in China is from forests (42%) and croplands (32%), but in India is mostly from croplands (82%) with minor contribution from forests (4.4%). China is engineering ambitious programmes to conserve and expand forests with the goal of mitigating land degradation, air pollution and climate change. Food production in China and India has increased by over 35% since 2000 mostly owing to an increase in harvested area through multiple cropping facilitated by fertilizer use and surface- and/or groundwater irrigation. Our results indicate that the direct factor is a key driver of the ‘Greening Earth’, accounting for over a third, and probably more, of the observed net increase in green leaf area. They highlight the need for a realistic representation of human land-use practices in Earth system models.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to the entire Nature family of 50+ journals
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The datasets generated during and/or analysed in this study are publicly available as referenced within the article. All data and scripts are available from the corresponding author on request.
Myneni, R. B. et al. Global products of vegetation leaf area and fraction absorbed PAR from year one of MODIS data. Remote Sens. Environ. 83, 214–231 (2002).
Myneni, R. B., Keeling, C. D., Tucker, C. J., Asrar, G. & Nemani, R. R. Increased plant growth in the northern high latitudes from 1981 to 1991. Nature 386, 698–702 (1997).
Zhou, L. et al. Variations in northern vegetation activity inferred from satellite data of vegetation index during 1981 to 1999. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 20069–20083 (2001).
Xu, L. et al. Temperature and vegetation seasonality diminishment over northern lands. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 581–586 (2013).
Vickers, H. et al. Changes in greening in the high Arctic: insights from a 30 year AVHRR max NDVI dataset for Svalbard. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 105004 (2016).
Park, T. et al. Changes in growing season duration and productivity of northern vegetation inferred from long-term remote sensing data. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 084001–084012 (2016).
Zhu, Z. et al. Greening of the Earth and its drivers. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 791–795 (2016).
Piao, S. et al. Detection and attribution of vegetation greening trend in China over the last 30 years. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 1601–1609 (2015).
Donohue, R. J., Roderick, M. L., McVicar, T. R. & Farquhar, G. D. Impact of CO2 fertilization on maximum foliage cover across the globe’s warm, arid environments. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 3031–3035 (2013).
Keenan, T. F. et al. Recent pause in the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 due to enhanced terrestrial carbon uptake. Nat. Commun. 7, 13428 (2016).
Cheng, L. et al. Recent increases in terrestrial carbon uptake at little cost to the water cycle. Nat. Commun. 8, 110 (2017).
Nemani, R. R. et al. Climate-driven increases in global terrestrial net primary production from 1982 to 1999. Science 300, 1560–1563 (2003).
Goetz, S. J., Bunn, A. G., Fiske, G. J. & Houghton, R. A. Satellite-observed photosynthetic trends across boreal North America associated with climate and fire disturbance. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 13521–13525 (2005).
Fensholt, R. et al. Greenness in semi-arid areas across the globe 1981–2007 — an Earth Observing Satellite based analysis of trends and drivers. Remote Sens. Environ. 121, 144–158 (2012).
Forkel, M. et al. Enhanced seasonal CO2 exchange caused by amplified plant productivity in northern ecosystems. Science 351, 696–699 (2016).
Mao, J. et al. Human-induced greening of the northern extratropical land surface. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 959–963 (2016).
Bjorkman, A. D. et al. Plant functional trait change across a warming tundra biome. Nature 562, 57–62 (2018).
Prestele, R. et al. Current challenges of implementing anthropogenic land-use and land-cover change in models contributing to climate change assessments. Earth Syst. Dynam. 8, 369–386 (2017).
Piao, S. et al. Lower land-use emissions responsible for increased net land carbon sink during the slow warming period. Nat. Geosci. 11, 739–743 (2018).
McMurtrie, R. E. et al. Why is plant-growth response to elevated CO2 amplified when water is limiting, but reduced when nitrogen is limiting? A growth-optimisation hypothesis. Funct. Plant Biol. 35, 521–534 (2008).
Wenzel, S., Cox, P. M., Eyring, V. & Friedlingstein, P. Projected land photosynthesis constrained by changes in the seasonal cycle of atmospheric CO2. Nature 538, 499–501 (2016).
Tian, F. et al. Evaluating temporal consistency of long-term global NDVI datasets for trend analysis. Remote Sens. Environ. 163, 326–340 (2015).
Song, X. P. et al. Global land change from 1982 to 2016. Nature 560, 639–643 (2018).
Yan, K. et al. Evaluation of MODIS LAI/FPAR product Collection 6. Part 1: consistency and improvements. Remote Sens. 8, 359 (2016).
Yan, K. et al. Evaluation of MODIS LAI/FPAR product Collection 6. Part 2: validation and intercomparison. Remote Sens. 8, 460 (2016).
Knyazikhin, Y., Martonchik, J. V., Myneni, R. B., Diner, D. J. & Running, S. W. Synergistic algorithm for estimating vegetation canopy leaf area index and fraction of absorbed photosynthetically active radiation from MODIS and MISR data. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 32257–32275 (1998).
Zhu, Z. et al. Global data sets of vegetation leaf area index (LAI)3g and fraction of photosynthetically active radiation (FPAR)3g derived from global inventory modeling and mapping studies (GIMMS) normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI3g) for the period 1981 to 2011. Remote Sens. 5, 927–948 (2013).
Wolf, J. et al. Biogenic carbon fluxes from global agricultural production and consumption. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 29, 1617–1639 (2015).
Lobell, D. B., Schlenker, W. & Costa-Roberts, J. Climate trends and global crop production since 1980. Science 333, 616–620 (2011).
Rosenzweig, C. & Parry, M. L. Potential impact of climate change on world food supply. Nature 367, 133–138 (1994).
Jain, H. K. Green Revolution: History, Impact and Future (Studium, Houston, 2010).
Zeng, N. et al. Agricultural Green Revolution as a driver of increasing atmospheric CO2 seasonal amplitude. Nature 515, 394–397 (2014).
Buitenwerf, R., Sandel, B., Normand, S., Mimet, A. & Svenning, J.-C. Land surface greening suggests vigorous woody regrowth throughout European semi-natural vegetation. Global Change Biol. 24, 5789–5801 (2018).
Fuchs, R., Herold, M., Verburg, P. H., Clevers, J. G. P. W. & Eberle, J. Gross changes in reconstructions of historic land cover/use for Europe between 1900 and 2010. Global Change Biol. 21, 299–313 (2015).
Fuchs, R. et al. Assessing the influence of historic net and gross land changes on the carbon fluxes of Europe. Global Change Biol. 22, 2526–2539 (2016).
Zhang, Y. et al. Multiple afforestation programs accelerate the greenness in the ‘Three North’ region of China from 1982 to 2013. Ecol. Indic. 61, 404–412 (2016).
Zhang, Y., Yao, Y., Wang, X., Liu, Y. & Piao, S. Mapping spatial distribution of forest age in China. Earth Space Sci. 4, 108–116 (2017).
Tong, X. et al. Increased vegetation growth and carbon stock in China karst via ecological engineering. Nat. Sustain. 1, 44–50 (2018).
Peng, S. S. et al. Afforestation in China cools local land surface temperature. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 2915–2919 (2014).
Lu, F. et al. Effects of national ecological restoration projects on carbon sequestration in China from 2001 to 2010. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 4039–4044 (2018).
Feng, X. et al. Revegetation in China’s Loess Plateau is approaching sustainable water resource limits. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 1019–1022 (2016).
Chakraborty, A., Seshasai, M. V. R., Reddy, C. S. & Dadhwal, V. K. Persistent negative changes in seasonal greenness over different forest types of India using MODIS time series NDVI data (2001–2014). Ecol. Indic. 85, 887–903 (2018).
Zhang, Y., Song, C., Band, L. E., Sun, G. & Li, J. Reanalysis of global terrestrial vegetation trends from MODIS products: browning or greening? Remote Sens. Environ. 191, 145–155 (2017).
FAOSTAT Database (FAO, 2018); http://www.fao.org/faostat/
Ray, D. K. & Foley, J. A. Increasing global crop harvest frequency: recent trends and future directions. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 044041 (2013).
Lu, C. & Tian, H. Global nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use for agriculture production in the past half century: shifted hot spots and nutrient imbalance. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 181–192 (2017).
Mueller, N. D. et al. Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature 490, 254–257 (2012).
Ambika, A. K., Wardlow, B. & Mishra, V. Remotely sensed high resolution irrigated area mapping in India for 2000 to 2015. Sci. Data 3, 160118 (2016).
Myneni, R., Knyazikhin Y. & Park, T. MOD15A2H MODIS/Terra Leaf Area Index/FPAR 8-day L4 Global 500 m SIN Grid V006 Data Set (NASA, 2015); https://doi.org/10.5067/MODIS/MOD15A2H.006
Myneni, R., Knyazikhin, Y. & Park, T. MYD15A2H MODIS/Aqua Leaf Area Index/FPAR 8-day L4 Global 500 m SIN Grid V006 Data Set (NASA, 2015); https://doi.org/10.5067/MODIS/MYD15A2H.006
Samanta, A. et al. Comment on “Drought-induced reduction in global terrestrial net primary production from 2000 through 2009”. Science 333, 1093 (2011).
MODIS land team. Validation: Status for LAI/FPAR (MOD15) (NASA, 2018); https://landval.gsfc.nasa.gov/ProductStatus.php?ProductID=MOD15
Pinzon, J. & Tucker, C. A non-stationary 1981–2012 AVHRR NDVI3g time series. Remote Sens. 6, 6929–6960 (2014).
Friedl, M. A., McIver, D. K., Hodges, J. & Zhang, X. Y. Global land cover mapping from MODIS: algorithms and early results. Remote Sens. Environ. 83, 287–302 (2002).
Dimiceli, C. et al. MOD44B MODIS/Terra Vegetation Continuous Fields Yearly L3 Global 250 m SIN Grid V006 Data Set (NASA, 2015); https://doi.org/10.5067/MODIS/MOD44B.006
Harris, I. C. & Jones, P. D. CRU TS4.01: Climatic Research Unit (CRU) Time-Series (TS) version 4.01 of High-Resolution Gridded Data of Month-by-Month Variation in Climate (Jan. 1901–Dec. 2016) (Centre for Environmental Data Analysis, 2017); https://doi.org/10.5285/58a8802721c94c66ae45c3baa4d814d0
Bronaugh, D. & Werner, A. zyp: Zhang + Yue-Pilon trends package. R package version 0.10-1 https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/zyp/index.html (2013).
This work was funded by NASA Earth Science Directorate. R.B.M. acknowledges funding by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. T.P. was funded by the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship Program. P.C. was funded by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) Convergence Lab Changement climatique et usage des terres (CLAND) and by the European Research Council Synergy project SyG-2013-610028 IMBALANCE-P. H.T. was funded by the Research Council of Norway (RCN #287402) and Nordforsk (CLINF). The article-processing charges for this publication were paid for by funds from a NASA Research Grant to Boston University.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Chen, C., Park, T., Wang, X. et al. China and India lead in greening of the world through land-use management. Nat Sustain 2, 122–129 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0220-7
1 km land use/land cover change of China under comprehensive socioeconomic and climate scenarios for 2020–2100
Scientific Data (2022)
Communications Earth & Environment (2022)
Nature Ecology & Evolution (2022)
The global carbon sink potential of terrestrial vegetation can be increased substantially by optimal land management
Communications Earth & Environment (2022)
Regional asymmetry in the response of global vegetation growth to springtime compound climate events
Communications Earth & Environment (2022)