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NASA Says Earth Is Greener Today Than 20 Years Ago Thanks to China, India (forbes.com/sites/trevornace)
154 points by sidcool on July 16, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments

I was speaking to someone employed as a state forester recently and we were comparing maps we had brought to the meeting. He talked about how he had access to all sorts of cool maps like infrared and even aerial maps dating back to the early 1910's and 20's. I joked that those maps must just be the tops of endless forests (this was in a northern state known for its forests) and he said the images seen were the opposite. He explained that farming back then was incredibly inefficient and farmers would clear cut as many trees as they could and till as much soil as possible on any piece of flat land they could access. The forester said that with advancements in farming and increases in efficiency, the countryside contained more forest land now than any previous point in time starting from when farmers grew crops for more than just their own family. It was a fact that I found interesting and had not considered before as I had always imagined the woods in olden times to be a larger percentage of all available land.

Woods were a larger percentage of land, but you're not thinking far back enough.

Your point of well explained in the book 'Rational Optimist' The intensive farming actually increased wilderness. With tech of 1960, it would have required 86% of land to be farmed to feed current world population.

A lot of the "forests" we have at least here are planted monocultures which are periodically completely cut down. Also known as "tree farms". All trees are the same age. Also the forest is full of ditches that makes it hard to pass for animals. The ecosystem and the species living there are quite different to real more natural forests. Most people have never even been to a multi century old forest anymore. Also we get invasions of pests like Diprion Pini etc. But yeah it looks green from a satellite or even airplane.

I am a forester and maybe I can chime in. From the point of view of CO2 assimilation the clear-cut or even better cut in small parts over the years forests are much better than those old-growth multicentury forests around the world. Actually old-growth forest will accumulate less CO2 than younger counterparts and may have ratio of realeased and accumulate CO2 being close to 1:1. Number of species at least in European or rather Polish forests are pretty large in both natural protected and normally used forests. Of course they are countries with worse forest conditions like for example Africa or Scandinavia, but still greener planet = better planet. It doesn't matter that much, why it is greener.

The general approach changes at least here. The largest difference is relatively smaller density of dead wood in the forests, which is important and still not fully understood habitat.

At least this science survey concludes that old forests do accumulate carbon. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature07276

Also a lot of the forest mass that gets cut is used for "green energy" so it's worse than letting it stay in the forest. Basically in a periodically burnt (bioenergy) forest the carbon is kept in the atmosphere most of the time while in an old growth forest it's in the trunks all the time.

>He explained that farming back then was incredibly inefficient and farmers would clear cut as many trees as they could and till as much soil as possible on any piece of flat land they could access.

I grew up in NH and there is far more forest there now than there was at the turn of the century. I remember going on a hike with my father and frequently running into stone walls and old pastures at least several hours' hike from the nearest roads.

Some more information on the actual amount of tree planting in china.

>China has been conducting what the United Nations has said is the world’s largest tree planting crusade, which increased its forest coverage from 8.6 per cent in 1949 to 21.7 per cent last year.

>By March this year, the total area covered by China’s artificial forests reached 69.3 million hectares, larger than the size of France, according to the State Forestry Administration.


I was in rural Yunnan earlier this year. Drove for multiple hours on the highway. Everywhere was entire mountains covered in rows of a single species of trees.

I'm not sure what the long term effects of such a widespread forest monoculture with no plant competition will result in.

At these kinds of scales, the effects can be enormous. Just across the sea, Japan went on their own replanting crusade, and ended up with a huge pollen allergy problem [0]

Hopefully they have thought through the problem well enough that they don't run into anything major, but putting in the same trees that were there is logically the least dangerous. In BC Canada, the government required replanting on forest licensed crown land HAS to be a representative mix of seeds gathered from that forest, and its for a reason.

[0] https://www.nytimes.com/1995/01/17/science/japan-s-cedar-for...

No longterm effect, one specialized bug with good conditions and that monoculture is dead. But that will give room for other species which would have a chance to root if it wasn't for the monocultures being so tightly planted

We have this back home, pine monoculture planted some 50-60 years ago to make parts of mountains more visually appealing (and probably more good reasons like cleaner air). In 2004 there was a freak storm with quite strong winds, half of that forest was destroyed, in many cases trees literally snapped in the middle of the trunk. Still pretty bad sight 25 years later.

They said it was freak accident that happens every few hundred years. Well there was another one few years after, and few other smaller ones since then.

Now its largely left on its own as being national park with highest protection level, but this has some (hopefully relatively short term) negative effects - population of bugs eating trees exploded and they are destroying remaining trees.

Monocultures sucks, we should know better.

A similar event occurred in Italy: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltempo_sul_Triveneto_del_2...

Whole swaths of forest razed, a tree monoculture planted after WWI in remembrance of the battles and the destruction fought in that quadrant of the Apls.

My guess is that you are talking about Slovakia here.

My weak Slovak makes it hard for me to research facts, so I tend to rely on my wife; but I understand that unfortunately the parkland is not "left on its own".

The state fells a lot of timber in the parks. They use the borers as an excuse, but cut down more than they need to control them.

There's yet another sad story for forests among the negative externalities from the transition from socialism. There were and still are large areas of land divided up and owned by general public, which has a legacy today, see [1].

One opportunist where I live went and bought as many of these as he could, often cheaply off old people and made bank by letting people come and fell the forest on them. You can see it all around here - big swathes of bare earth cut through forested hills/mountains with no regard to sustainability. It really upsets me.

[1] http://4liberty.eu/land-consolidation-in-slovakia-chance-for...

Yepp, that's the place. I actually come from the region just below the mountains, so see it anytime I go back home. Not nice at all.

Yes some crooks were/are using this to cut more (healthy) trees, ie having permit for 10 but cutting down 100 trees. Then there are large parts of still standing forest which completely died out due to overpopulation of tree eating bugs (which happened due to dead wood not being removed). Most of this happening in highly protected park.

Law enforcement is pretty bad back home (read - cops are often beyond useless and corrupt), with general public viewing such thievery as semi-acceptable. One of many reasons I moved out, no matter how nice the nice parts are, the bad ones are plenty and sour the whole experience.

I recall them speaking about this a decade ago. There were huge dust storms in Beijing due to the desertification around the city. I've been out of Beijing for some time now, are the storms as bad as they used to be? Is this replanting have an impact?

Isn't it facing a massive desertification which this is trying to slow / stop?

I am impressed that China is making this effort, I wish we would do the same, but with an aim of building communities of plants and trees, not a monoculture.

Are these commercial plantations? And what is the biodiversity in the forests?

This is including crops:

> Another 32% there – and 82% of the greening seen in India – comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

And there isn't enough biodiversity to balance damage done elsewhere:

> The researchers point out that the gain in greenness seen around the world and dominated by India and China does not offset the damage from loss of natural vegetation in tropical regions, such as Brazil and Indonesia. The consequences for sustainability and biodiversity in those ecosystems remain.


The Wikipedia article about the green great wall[0], has some interesting information about that. I was blown away when I first found out about it.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-North_Shelter_Forest_Pro...

Somewhat related - there was a study recently that proposed planting a trillion trees as a way to combat climate change:


I wonder how these reforestations efforts in India and China compare in absolute numbers to the "trillion" figure cited in the study.

I was curious haw this is actually measured, so to make it easier for others, LAI stands for "Leaf Area Index" [0], and is measured as "the one-sided green leaf area per unit ground surface area (LAI = leaf area / ground area, m2 / m2) in broadleaf canopies.[1] In conifers, three definitions for LAI have been used"

I'm a bit surprised to see the greening in the Rockies, and in North America in general given the devastation that the bark beetle has caused over the last 20 years. But it's nice to read that some trends are in the right direction.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaf_area_index

That would be a productive competition: putting our national pride behind planting trees

“We can’t let CHINA beat US on reforestation!”

Might be the trick

And on solar panels installations, and on plastic recycling (actual recycling, not shipping it elsewhere), and on electric buses, etc etc...

I think it is kind of "lucky" for the pollution becomes really bad and people suddenly realize this is a big problem for the future. And the government actually doesn't need a vote to execute the plan with all the effort they can put.

from the actual article https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/human-activity-in-china-an...

> China’s outsized contribution to the global greening trend comes in large part (42%) from programs to conserve and expand forests. These were developed in an effort to reduce the effects of soil erosion, air pollution and climate change. Another 32% there – and 82% of the greening seen in India – comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

Excellent step. I'm still a bit concerned about these countries' oversized share in the plastic pollution of oceans. While countries such as the US contribute almost nothing to plastic waste in the oceans, the majority of it comes from China, India, Indonesia and Africa.

I wonder if there are plans to redirect any funds spent on recycling and eco-conscious consumption in developed countries towards better collection of plastic waste in developing countries.

The claim "While countries such as the US contribute almost nothing to plastic waste in the oceans" is laughable. Where do you think all that single use plastic from US goes? It's an externality that US doesn't pay for but likes to talk about a lot. https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2019/3/6/15700....

I find it surprising that you would think that plastic trash goes into the ocean. In fact, it goes to the landfills. The trash in the ocean comes from poor waste management in Asia and Africa (none of the top 20 most plastic-polluting rivers are in the US), and a small portion (20%) comes from natural disasters such as the Sendai tsunami.

USA's trash goes to landfills, from where only a tiny part of it can accidentally get into the water. Other places just dump trash into the water.

Did you bother to open the link?

China is also the biggest contributor to CO2 emission by a large margin.

Western countries outsource CO2 emissions to China

Yes. It's easier to blame China this way and what would the West do if their favorite nemesis was gone?

It's also the largest country, by a large margin.

China is only slightly larger than India by population; 1.39 billion vs. 1.35 billion.


(And yes, "slightly" is 40 million people, more than the population of California.)

Where does this leave Russia which is almost twice as big and Canada which is only slightly bigger? And China is less than 1% larger than USA.

Population-wise China is the largest, but India is not that far behind.


Not yet by cumulative emissions, and CO2 is a cumulative problem.

Also definitely not per capita.

Numerically integrating the emissions of China and US [1] from 1971-2016 leads to:

China: 183,000 million tons C02

US: 234,000 million tons C02

That's a 1.28x more for the US. Since industrialization in the US started well before 1971 (you can infer this from the graph), this is significant underestimate.

Obviously, the other important estimate is per capita emissions, which would be even lower for China than the 1.28x estimate above.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:World_fossil_carbon_dioxi...

Growth rates matter. China's emissions are growing rapidly and are largely end-loaded.

The rule of 70 is useful; divide 70 by growth rate in percent tobget doubling time in years.

US carbon emissions have been roughly flat, and falling most years since 2005, likely from natgas substitution for coal in electricity generation, though total petroleum use has also fallen:


Too: total energy in the US as of the 1970s was doubling roughly every 20 years (3.5% annual growth), meaning that "all prior history" doesn't matter to much -- half of all emissions had occurred 1950-1970 (very roughly, from memory). Similarly, as coal use was rampling up in the 1860s, contemporary writers noted that a fraction of known reserves would satisfy US energy needs for a million years ... at then-current levels of consumption. What happened, of course, is that low-cost energy spurred growth and coal use exploded. Current reserves as estimated by BP's annual statistical review are closer to 300 years, a reduction in time of over 3,000-fold.

Henry Erni (1865): https://archive.org/details/coaloilpetroleum00erni/page/14

BP: https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/stat...

China's emissions were projected to rise 5% in 2018, by one source, a doubling in 15 years.


There's much more to the picture, including equity, offshoring pollution, and history. bBut a simple integration over past use alone is very incomplete.

Not per capita, by far.

Thanks, Thought I was going crazy.

Lol about it being crops and not trees, what a crap article.

Forest coverage has been increasing in several European countries as well (e.g. UK and France off the top of my head)

This goes for a toss when correlated with https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_greenhous...

Why not do it per capita instead?

Climate Change doesn't care about per capita.

Climate change doesn't care about which country either.

I agree with the fact that China and India need to focus on their emissions, but it seems ridiculously convenient for someone from a western country to ask a couple billion people to reduce their emissions while they themselves will find every opportunity to reduce their own accountability.

FYI - A US per capita emission is almost 20 times more than that of India. https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Environment/...

Our production of emissions is per capita. It's "human induced emission"

CC cares even less about how we structure our abitrary political systems.

I don't like these articles for the simple fact that climate change deniers use it as "evidence" that climate change is fake

What on earth does reforestation by humans have to do with climate change?

Sigh, clearly nothing if you aren't one of those people the previous comment was referring to

"You see, Earth is getting greener! Things are getting better! Maybe we don't need to cut down on fossil fuels and wasteful consumption after all!"

Exactly, this is precisely the kind of stuff I hear. Also not sure why so many downvotes lol, I think many misunderstood what I was saying

They must have, yes. You have my upvote, FWIW.

That does sound like the kind of dumb thing people say (or thing dumb people say - seems equivalent in this case.) But logically the two are completely unconnected. Earth getting greener or browner doesn't say anything about climate change.

Greener -> more carbon sequestered -> better. It's not that simple in reality, but it's about on the level of an average person's knowledge about the topic.

That still doesn't say anything about climate change. It's all about rate of change of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Greener in terms of forests is a temporary sequestration, greener in terms of farms is a net negative since the carbon is soon returned to the biosphere and we expend a lot of energy in the process. Just to know the earth is getting greener or browner is not enough information to say anything about climate change.

Trees convert the evil gas into the brown solid stuff. When there is less evil gas the world wont get as hot.

> I don't like these articles for the simple fact that climate change

In all likelihood the human race will be killed by computers (hacked, robotics, software errors, hardware failures, and so on and so on.. pick one), and Not climate change. Just sayin.

Feels like you're assigning probabilities out of thin air. For example, not sure how hardware failures would wipe out the entire human race, or even cause the collapse of modern civilization across the planet - like every single piece of critical hardware in all major cities would somehow have to fail in a limited space of time. It would require controlled electricity (for lack of a better term) to spontaneously disappear - the laws of physics would have to change, or maybe every human to contract a virus that makes us allergic to being near large amounts of electricity. Not to mention there was nearly modern civilization before electronics were invented that we could fall back to.

Sounds like a cool premise for a novel, but something fanciful to the extreme.

> Feels like you're assigning probabilities out of thin air.

True, I did not run a probability study; however if one looks at the control that computers have on every facet of your existence and how often they fail--I'm pretty the odds would scare the fuck out of you.

> Not to mention there was nearly modern civilization before electronics were invented that we could fall back to.

You going down to the stream to fetch water when it no longer flows from your faucet?

> like every single piece of critical hardware in all major cities would somehow have to fail

Viruses could do it. People panic. Could you live a week without food or power? Please, I remember when Hurricane Sandy hit here in NY... it would not take much to turn society on its ear. Of course, I'm sure your right--after all Y2K never happened, and I mean who could foresee in 1983 that the future would actually be here in 17 LONG, LONG years.

I find the title misleading, the main reason Earth is getting greener is mainly because of higher CO2 emissions[0]. Saying the earth is getting greener thanks to China and India, is forgetting that ~84% of the increase is not related to these countries[1].

What is truly new, is that human activity in India and China alone is responsable of a 16% increase of leaf area. So, to quote original article:

> now that we know direct human influence is a key driver of the greening Earth, we need to factor this into our climate models

[0] https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2436/co2-is-making-earth-green...

[1] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/human-activity-in-china-an...

Correct of course.

"Results showed that carbon dioxide fertilization explains 70 percent of the greening effect, said co-author Ranga Myneni, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University. “The second most important driver is nitrogen, at 9 percent. "


The greening is also observed in areas unaffected by man's agricultural activities.

Correct, as the NASA link clearly delineates:

>The researchers point out that the gain in greenness seen around the world and dominated by India and China does not offset the damage from loss of natural vegetation in tropical regions, such as Brazil and Indonesia. The consequences for sustainability and biodiversity in those ecosystems remain.

Thinking that China and India have "got this" would be a catastrophic assumption (obligatory xkcd[0]).

[0] - https://xkcd.com/1732/

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