Science - December 11, 2014

Europe became greener in last century

Rik Nijland

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.’

Artificial fertilizer

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.’   

Landgebruik in Europa tussen 1900 en 2010

Washington Post
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.’