Research Press Release

Environment: Changes in global land use four times higher than previously thought

Nature Communications

May 12, 2021

An area of land equivalent to almost one third of the global land surface has changed use between 1960–2019, reports a study in Nature Communications. The finding is nearly four times greater than previous estimates.

Quantifying changes in land use (for example, as a result of agriculture, deforestation or afforestation) is critical for being able to tackle challenges such as food security, climate change and biodiversity loss. However, understanding the changes that have taken place is limited by a lack of comprehensive data and uncertainties in existing reconstructions.

Karina Winkler and colleagues developed a model called the Historic Land Dynamics Assessment+ to assess changes in land use from 1960 to 2019. The authors found that when all individual change events (including areas of multiple change) were totalled, 43 million km2 of land has changed use over this period (corresponding to 32% of the global land surface). They estimate that, on average, an area of land twice the size of Germany has changed use every year since 1960.

In addition, the authors’ analysis identified that there has been a global net loss of forest area of 0.8 million km2, whereas croplands and pastures have expanded by 1.0 and 0.9 million km2, respectively. Afforestation and cropland abandonment has increased in the Global North, but deforestation and agricultural expansion have risen in the Global South over the period.

The authors conclude that their model can contribute to a better understanding of the environmental impacts of land use change, and improve assessments of land use strategies in support of policies such as the Paris Climate targets and the Sustainable Development Goals.

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