According to scientists, the Earth is in the midst of one of the biggest climate crises it has ever faced. However, while deforestation remains a massive issue in certain parts of the planet, NASA has discovered something that may yet come as a surprise: in general, the world is greener now than it was 20 years ago. And as it happens, we have two unlikely countries to thank for that transformation.
Chillingly, deforestation is thought to have the potential to put all living things on Earth in real peril. Essentially, you see, the systematic process of destroying our planet’s life-giving forests is one of the driving forces of climate change. And in turn, this may spell danger for our existence on Earth. Indeed, António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, has gone so far as to describe climate change as “the most systemic threat to humankind.”
And denuding forests is a problem in part because trees absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases that effectively trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Cutting trees down, then, releases that stored carbon dioxide. In fact, if deforestation was a nation, it would come third to America and China in a worldwide tally of countries’ carbon dioxide emissions.
What’s more, trees are being removed in alarmingly large quantities. Indeed, research conducted by the World Bank shows that more than half a million square miles of forest were felled worldwide between 1990 and 2016. To put this figure into perspective, that’s an area you could easily put South Africa into.
Even more worryingly, research released by journal Nature in 2015 suggests that humans have cut down more than 45 percent of the planet’s trees since the deforestation trend began. Tropical rainforests are the areas that have been worst affected; approximately 17 percent of the Amazon was lost in the five decades up to 2015, for example.
And deforestation shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization claims that approximately 18 million acres of forest – an area equal to that of Panama – is destroyed each year. This equates to about 27 soccer pitches being felled every 60 seconds. And according to some estimates, if this process continues at its current rate, the planet may be rainforest-free within a century.
As for what deforestation actually involves, it basically means that trees are cleared in order to use the land on which they sit – for farming or human settlements, say. Alternatively, forests may be razed so that the wood can be sold as building materials or illegally as fuel. And the effects of this kind of widespread felling can be catastrophic.
When trees are removed from an area and not replaced, you see, huge habitat losses may result. Seventy percent of our planet’s animals and plants call the forests their home; as their territory is gradually destroyed, then, some species may be in danger of extinction. Some of the most notable animals to become threatened as a result of deforestation include the Bornean orangutan, the giant panda and certain types of tiger.
One of the ways in which forests are cleared, meanwhile, is by burning large swathes of trees to the ground. Another method used is clearcutting, in which an entire area of forest is chopped down. And, naturally, both of these techniques are hugely damaging, since they leave the affected land completely arid and so at risk of soil erosion.
Then there’s deforestation’s effect on the planet’s water cycle. Since trees absorb rain and then release water vapor in the atmosphere, even a small adjustment to this process can affect weather patterns. And according to an article published in 2005 in the journal National Academy of Sciences, deforestation has already caused a 4 percent reduction in land-mass-based vapor flows around the world.
So with all that in mind, it’s clear that forests form a vital part of our ecosystem. As a result, then, a number of environmentalists believe that deforestation must be halted and reversed in order to prevent global warming. And while saving our forests will not stop climate change altogether, it would nonetheless help to alleviate some of the problems that have been outlined.
That certainly seems to be the conclusion reached by the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which was released in 2006 and concluded that trees played a significant role in our environment. “Action to preserve the remaining areas of natural forest is needed urgently,” the report claimed. Furthermore, the Stern Review recommended implementing “large-scale pilot schemes… to explore effective approaches to combining national action and international support.”
Given the importance of forests to our environment, then, it’s no wonder that American space agency NASA has been monitoring the changing face of the Earth’s foliage from afar. And in order to do this, the organization has used two technologically advanced satellites that jointly create data concerning our planet’s foliage.
Details of the near 20-year NASA study featured in the journal Nature Sustainability in February 2019. And as expected, the research found evidence of large swathes of deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia. But, fortunately, the news wasn’t all grim.
Since the year 2000, you see, the “green-leaf area” on Earth has expanded in size by 5 percent. This amounts to a couple of million square miles – or, to put it another way, an area akin to the whole of the Amazon rainforest. What’s more, it seems that we actually have humans to thank for this.
Yet when scientists first observed the so-called “greening phenomena” in the ’90s, they suspected that global warming may have been responsible. “We thought [the greening] was due to a warmer, wetter climate and fertilization from the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to more leaf growth in northern forests, for instance,” NASA researcher Rama Nemani explained in a statement.
Thanks to NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), however, experts were able to better understand how and why the greening affect was occurring. This particular instrument not only provides extremely reliable data, but it also allows researchers to explore what’s happening with the planet’s vegetation in relatively minute detail.
Nemani explained, “Now, with the MODIS data that lets us understand the [greening] phenomenon at really small scales, we see that humans are also contributing [to this process].” He added, “This will help scientists make better predictions about the behavior of different Earth systems, [and it] will [also] help countries make better decisions about how and when to take action.”
Furthermore, if the greening phenomenon had only arisen as a result of climate change, this would been indicated in the MODIS data. But the fact that some of the foliage increases were contained within certain countries’ borders suggested, perhaps, that organized human activity was responsible. Yet that isn’t the only surprise in store.
The countries responsible for the most greening in the study, you see, were China and India. That may come as a shock, given that these nations are not only intensely populated but also hold just 9 percent of the green spaces on Earth between them.
Furthermore, India and China are considered to be two of the most polluting countries on the planet. It’s true, at least, that China produces the most carbon dioxide of any nation – at a whopping 30 percent of overall emissions of the gas worldwide. India, meanwhile, comes in third on the list of nations with the greatest carbon dioxide output.
And, it must be said, India and China have two of the fastest growing economies on the planet. For that reason, then, there’s been a perception that the nations are willing to exploit water and land resources for financial gain rather than protect them.
Nevertheless, the NASA study suggests otherwise. Speaking of the shock findings, one of the study’s lead authors, Chi Chen, said, “China and India account for one-third of the greening but contain only 9 percent of the planet’s land area covered in vegetation.” He added that the results were “surprising considering the general notion of land degradation in populous countries from over-exploitation.”
Those results, moreover, show that China alone is responsible for over 20 percent of the increase in green-leaf area. And the majority of this escalation in foliage can be chalked up to the nation’s concerted efforts to expand and nurture forestland. The country is reportedly eager to become a leading power in environmental protection, and it had vowed to plant more than 16 million acres of forest in 2018 alone.
In the five years prior to 2018, in fact, China spent over $80 billion planting trees. By 2020, then, the country hopes to have increased its total forest area to 23 percent of its land mass; a 26-percent increase is also targeted for 2035. In order to achieve this feat, though, officials urged experts to come forward.
In 2018 The Daily Telegraph obtained a statement from Zhang Jianlong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration. And in this message, the minister said, “Companies, organizations and talent that specialize in greening work are all welcome to join in the country’s massive greening campaign. Cooperation between government and social capital will be put on the priority list.”
Specifically, China turned to forestation programs in a bid to tackle the issues of air pollution, climate change and soil erosion. In 2014 the country also embarked on a “war on pollution” in order to improve air quality in its cities – particularly those where industry is growing.
So, in addition to punishing those flouting environmental rules and getting tough on polluting businesses, China also decided that forestation programs were vital. To help new woodlands flourish, then, the Chinese government implemented policies that are known as the “ecological red line.” Among other things, these strictures required local authorities to stem “irrational development” near national parks, rivers and forests.
In India, meanwhile, the increase in green-leaf area has been largely down to more efficient use of croplands. As in China, the country uses 770,000 square miles or so of land to grow food. And while this area hasn’t changed much in 20 years, an increase in crop production and foliage has occurred in both India and China thanks to the multiple cropping techniques that have been adopted.
Multiple cropping involves growing more than one type of crop on the same land during the growing season. Alternatively, a field may be planted and harvested multiple times each year. And by using this method, both India and China have been able to boost production of fruits, vegetables and grains by around 40 percent since the turn of the century, helping them in turn to feed their respective citizens.
Furthermore, India appears to have recently taken an interest in planting more trees. In 2016 a team of volunteers in the country took part in a record-breaking tree establishing mission, which saw 50 million saplings planted in various public spaces in just one day.
This effort came about after India agreed at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference that more than 10 percent of its landmass would play home to new trees by 2030. And while such a project would ultimately cost over $6 billion, it appears that the nation is serious in its commitment. Indeed, Indian officials have agreed to monitor the 50 million saplings in order to give them the best chance of survival.
Despite the apparent success stories coming from India and China, however, it’s still too early to tell how this greening tendency may develop in the future. Since our planet relies on a very delicate equilibrium, you see, any small change in the environment could affect the greening outcomes on both a local and a global scale.
Nevertheless, the reported increase in green-leaf area did give scientists some hope for the future – not least because it suggests that people alone can make a difference. “Now that we know direct human influence is a key driver of the greening Earth, we need to factor this into our climate models,” Nemani said in a statement posted to the NASA website in 2019.
Nemani also went on to outline how he envisaged the data his team had gathered would inform experts going forward. In particular, he claimed that the details would help better advise scientists on how various Earth systems function. And as a consequence, the study could also assist nations in making decisions about how and when to react when it comes to protecting the planet.
As an associate professor for the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, Thomas Pugh is one of the experts Nemani was referring to. And he certainly agreed that the NASA report improved the way in which the scientific community understood global greening. Even so, Pugh said, it still wasn’t clear if the greening trend was decreasing the negative effects of a changing climate.
In an interview with CNN in February 2019, Pugh explained that the greening trend is a “tangible sign of how the biosphere is responding to human activities – whether through climate change or how we use the land.” He added, “It generally implies an increase in vegetation coverage, productivity of that vegetation or both – although neither of those relationships are unambiguous and universally consistent.”
And, unfortunately, the green-leaf gains that researchers discovered weren’t large enough to make up for the losses of vegetation in tropical areas such as Indonesia and Brazil. However, Nemani still believed that the results of the study were positive.
In fact, in his statement to the NASA website, Nemani went on to explain why he viewed the study’s results favorably. “Once people realize there’s a problem, they tend to fix it,” he said. “In the ’70s and ’80s in India and China, the situation around vegetation loss wasn’t good. In the ’90s, people realized [this], and today things have improved.”
With that in mind, Nemani seemed to be rather optimistic that the problem of deforestation – and potentially climate change – could be solved if only people realize the issues at hand and figure out how to tackle them. “Humans are incredibly resilient,” he told NASA. “That’s what we see in the satellite data.”