Desertification: Planet’s tree-covered areas fell by 35,204 sq km in 15 years

Countries party to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification meet to review the first global land degradation assessment

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 28 January 2019
Representational Photo. Credit: Getty Images

There is some good and bad news for the planet. A preliminary assessment report circulated by the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) shows that tree-covered areas remain the dominant land use class. While the rate of deforestation has slowed down after 2005, forests continue to shrink.

The assessment is for the 2000-2015 period. Currently, the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC 17) of UNCCD is meeting in Georgetown, Guyana. This is the first such global assessment of land degradation based on data submitted by countries party to the convention. Out of the 197 countries party to UNCCD, 145 have submitted data on land degradation.

The preliminary assessment based on this data shows that the world’s dominant land class is still the tree-covered areas that include natural forests. Tree-covered areas account for 32.4 per cent of total land cover area reported by countries.

Now, here is the bad news. “Globally, tree-covered areas fell by ~1, 41,610 sq km from 2000 to 2005, but rebounded by 2015 to a net decline of 35,204 sq km (-0.1 per cent) below 2000 levels,” says the assessment.

Tree-covered areas have increased in Central and Eastern Europe, the Northern Mediterranean and Asia. Such areas have decreased in Latin American and Caribbean countries and Africa. Sixty per cent of the tree-covered areas globally are in Central and Eastern Europe and in Latin American and Caribbean countries.

After tree-covered areas, grasslands, croplands, wetlands and artificial surfaces represent 23.1 per cent, 17.7 per cent, 4.2 per cent and 0.8 per cent of the total reported land area, respectively.

However, the world has reported the highest change in the land class called artificial areas that primarily account for lands diverted for uses like urbanisation. This class recorded a 32.2 per cent growth in the 2000-2015 period. In other words, an addition of 1, 68, 000 square kilometres.

“This trend in increasing artificial areas is considered a critical transition, with 48,240 sq km of the new artificial areas coming from previously ‘natural’ areas, jumping to 143,200 sq km when combining ‘natural and semi-natural’ areas.” This transition mostly happened from croplands and grasslands.

“Population pressure, land tenure and poverty are the most frequently-cited indirect drivers of land cover change,” says the report.

On the other hand, cropland has also increased consistently during the assessment period. This class has gained 575,000 sq km. “Most of this is the result of transitions from tree-covered areas (369,000 sq km), other land (310,900 sq km) and grassland (424,700 sq km),” says the assessment.

“Transitions from other land to cropland are almost three times the transition of cropland to other land, indicating that more marginal lands have been brought back into production. Drivers of cropland losses include urbanisation, improper soil management, improper crop management and industrial activities,” the report says. 

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