Europe has become much more urban in the last hundred years,
but it has also become greener. Since 1900 the area covered in forest has increased by one third; less and less farmland is needed. PhD candidate Richard Fuchs got into the world press last week with these conclusions.
These results, however – which Fuchs illustrates with beautiful maps – are only a ‘byproduct’ of his research at the Laboratory for Geo-information science and remote sensing. There he reconstructed changes in land use, in order to determine their influence on climate change. ‘After the use of fossil fuels, global changes in land use are the main source of CO2 emissions.’
These shifts are systematically underestimated, he states in an article that appeared at the end of September in the journal Global Change Biology. Official statistics are the usual basis for identifying changes in land use. But they can obscure the facts, says Fuchs. ‘Imagine that 500 hectares of forest are cut down and 500 hectares planted. The net result for the national statistics is zero, but actually there has been a real change.’ In order to get closer to the reality on the ground, Fuchs consulted other sources. For the last 30 years, satellite images are available, and for the period before that he consulted encyclopedias, online archives and maps such as those of the CIA.
Throughout the cold war, the CIA was very interested in land use in the eastern bloc. Conclusion: half the land in Europe is used differently now to the way it was in 1900; twice as large an area as was assumed up to now. Many of the changes are due to social, political and technological change, Fuchs noticed. For example, the introduction of artificial fertilizer in the Netherlands made it unnecessary to graze sheep on heathland. Reforestation was a good alternative. ‘Around 1900 only about 3 percent of the Netherlands was forested; that is now 12 percent.’
In the French and Spanish countryside, farmers use their good land more and more intensively, while letting less productive plots run to seed or turn to forest. Something comparable happened in eastern Europe after the end of communism: marginal land was abandoned. One of the countries where this happened was former East Germany, where geo-information scientist Fuchs comes from. Five years ago he followed professor Martin Herold from the University of Jena to Wageningen, to do his PhD here. He expects to graduate by summer next year. At the moment, however, he has an extra job on his hands dealing with the press. In order to draw attention to his research, Fuchs sent an email to a climate journalist at Der Spiegel. He took the bait: an interview appeared on the magazine’s website. ‘Then The Washington Post jumped at it. I have now been interviewed six times.’