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.

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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.

Author information


  1. Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

    • Chi Chen
    • , Taejin Park
    • , Baodong Xu
    •  & Ranga B. Myneni
  2. Sino-French Institute for Earth System Science, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing, China

    • Xuhui Wang
    •  & Shilong Piao
  3. Macro Agriculture Research Institute, College of Resource and Environment, Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan, China

    • Baodong Xu
  4. Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, Goa, India

    • Rajiv K. Chaturvedi
  5. Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research—Atmospheric Environmental Research, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

    • Richard Fuchs
  6. Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, Germany

    • Victor Brovkin
  7. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement/IPSL, CEA-CNRS-UVSQ, Université Paris Saclay, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
  8. Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Rasmus Fensholt
  9. Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Fram Centre, Tromsø, Norway

    • Hans Tømmervik
  10. Center for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India

    • Govindasamy Bala
  11. Shenzhen Key Laboratory of Circular Economy, Shenzhen Graduate School, Peking University, Shenzhen, China

    • Zaichun Zhu
  12. NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, USA

    • Ramakrishna R. Nemani


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C.C. carried out the analyses with contributions from T.P., X.W., B.X., R.K.C. and R.F. C.C. and R.B.M. wrote the article. All authors contributed ideas for analyses, comments and critiques on drafts.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Chi Chen.

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