The Earth Is Greener Than It Was 20 Years Ago, Thanks to China and India

While the fast-industrializing Global South plays a huge role in making the world a greyer and more polluted place, NASA satellites have found that China and India, the two most populous countries, are making it a greener place than 20 years ago, mostly due to the intensive agriculture and tree planting programs.

The journal Nature Sustainability published a NASA study which found that the global green leaf areas in have increased by 5%  since the beginning of the new millennium, which is the size of the entire Amazon rainforest.

Researchers were able to inspect the Earth’s vegetation on the level of 1,600 feet on the ground with the help of detailed imagery and high-resolution data provided by an instrument known as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, which uses two satellites.

The lead author Chi Chen of Boston University reported that China and India account for 1/3 of the greening, but contain only 9 percent of the Earth’s land area covered in vegetation, which is interesting, considering the general notion of land degradation in populous countries from overexploitation.

Since the mid-1990s, there was an ambitious Chinese project whose aim was to ameliorate the effects of deforestation, erosion, smog, climate change, and rampant pollution, due to the poor regulations and free-market reforms as the country become the “world’s workshop.”

Beijing decided to conserve and expand its forests and launched tree-planting mobilizations that called on all citizens and soldiers to plant trees as a matter of civic duty. This led to more than 40 percent of the country’s greening, and the dense forests that were planted controlled the floods that also soaked up huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Moreover, in India, the intensive cultivation of crops led to much of the greening, an actually accounts for 82 percent of greening in India. China and India also increased food production in order to feed their large, urbanizing populations.

In 2017, India broke all records, when volunteers planted 66 million saplings in about 12 hours.

Much of the greening is due to this intensive cultivation of crops, according to NASA, and it accounts for 32 percent of the greening in China and 82 percent in India. NASA claims that since 2000, the production of grains, vegetables, fruits and more have increased by 35 to 40 percent.

The reforestation helps the regulation of the Earth’s carbon cycle and the absorption of fast-increasing carbon emissions resulting from human activities.

Yet, despite these admirable efforts towards renewable energy sources, China is still mainly reliant on fossil fuels that make it the biggest greenhouse gas emitter on Earth.

The paper shows that the greening trend may change in the future due to numerous factors, like the fact that the increased food production in India is facilitated by groundwater irrigation.

The researchers also emphasized that the gain in greenness around the world does not necessarily counteract the loss of natural vegetation in tropical regions like Brazil and Indonesia, and there are consequences for sustainability and biodiversity in those ecosystems beyond the simple greenness of the landscape.

Yet, researches continue hoping, and Rama Nemani, a co-author of the study and research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, claims that when they first observed the greening of the Earth, they thought it was due to a warmer, wetter climate and fertilization from the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Yet, they are now realizing that humans are also contributing. When they realize there is a problem, they tend to fix it. This happened in the 1970s and 80s in India and China, when the situation around vegetation loss was bad, so when people realized it in the 1990s, they worked hard to improve things. He claims that satellite data just confirmed that humans are incredibly resilient.