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China and India lead in greening of the world through land-use management


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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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.

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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

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Chi Chen.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Map of trends in annual average MODIS LAI for 2000–2017.
Fig. 2: Trends in forests and other woody vegetation of China.
Fig. 3: Leaf area trends in croplands of China and India.