NASA has some good news, the world is a greener place today than it was 20 years ago. What prompted the change? Well, it appears China and India can take the majority of the credit.
In contrast to the perception of China and India’s willingness to overexploit land, water and resources for economic gain, the countries are responsible for the largest greening of the planet in the past two decades. The two most populous countries have implemented ambitious tree planting programs and scaled up their implementation and technology around agriculture.
India continues to break world records in tree planting, with 800,000 Indians planting 50 million trees in just 24 hours.
The recent finding by NASA and published in the journal Nature Sustainability, compared satellite data from the mid-1990s to today using high-resolution imagery. Initially, the researchers were unsure what caused the significant uptick in greening around the planet. It was unclear whether a warming planet, increased carbon dioxide (CO2) or a wetter climate could have caused more plants to grow.
After further investigation of the satellite imagery, the researchers found that greening was disproportionately located in China and India. If the greening was primarily a response from climate change and a warming planet, the increased vegetation shouldn’t be limited to country borders. In addition, higher latitude regions should become greener faster than lower latitudes as permafrost melts and areas like northern Russia become more habitable.
The map above shows the relative greening (increase in vegetation) and browning (decrease in vegetation) around the globe. As you can see both China and India have significant greening.
The United States sits at number 7 in the total change in vegetation percent by decade. Of course, the chart below can hide where each country started. For example, a country that largely kept their forests and vegetation intact would have little room to increase percent vegetation whereas a country that heavily relied on deforestation would have more room to grow.
NASA used Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) to get a detailed picture of Earth’s global vegetation through time. The technique provided up to 500-meter resolution for the past two decades.
Both China and India went through phases of large scale deforestation in the 1970s and 80s, clearing old growth forests for urban development, farming and agriculture. However, it is clear that when presented with a problem, humans are incredibly adept at finding a solution. When the focus shifted in the 90s to reducing air and soil pollution and combating climate change the two countries made tremendous shifts in their overall land use.
It is encouraging to see swift and rapid change in governance and land use when presented with a dilemma. It is something that will continue to be a necessary skill in the decades to come.
I am a geologist passionate about sharing Earth’s intricacies with you. I received my PhD from Duke University where I studied the geology and climate of the Amazon. I am the founder of Science Trends, a leading source of science news and analysis on everything from climate change to cancer research. Let’s connect @trevornace