Our Impact on Climate Change and Land Use in 5 Charts
As the world population approaches the eight billion mark, it’s becoming clear that we’re impacting the planet in unprecedented ways.
Humans have made such dramatic changes to Earth’s systems, from climate to geology, that many are suggesting we’ve entered into a new epoch – the Anthropocene.
To better understand the challenges of this era of wide-sweeping human impact on the planet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has produced a massive report covering land use and climate change.
According to the IPCC, the situation is looking more dire by the year. Below are a few of the key insights buried within the 1,400+ pages of the massive report.
Shifting Global Land Use
The scale of land use and loss of biodiversity are unprecedented in human history.
According to the report, roughly two-thirds of the world’s ice-free land is now devoted to human uses. Ecosystems, both forested and unforested, only account for about 16% of land today. Part of the reason for this dwindling supply of natural habitat is the rapid increase of agricultural activity around the world.
Since the dawn of the 20th century, global land use has shifted dramatically:
Not only has land use changed, but so has farming itself. In many parts of the world, increased yields will primarily come from existing agricultural land. For example, wheat yields are projected to increase 11% by the year 2026, despite the growing area only increasing by 1.8%. Rice production exhibits a similar trend, with 93% of the projected increase expected to come from increased yields rather than from area expansion. In some cases, intensive farming practices can degrade soil more than 100x faster than the time it takes for new soil to form, leaving fertilizers to pick up the slack.
One of the most dramatic changes highlighted in the report is the nearly eight-fold increase in the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers since the early 1960s. These types of fertilizers are having serious downstream effects on aquatic ecosystems, in some cases creating “dead zones” such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition to the negative impacts outlined above, the simple act of feeding ourselves also accounts for one-third of our global greenhouse gas footprint.
Things are Heating Up
The past half-decade is likely to become the warmest five-year stretch in recorded history, underscoring the rapid pace of climate change. On a global scale, even a small increase in temperature can have a big impact on climate and our ecosystems.
For example, air can hold approximately 7% more moisture for every 1ºC increase, leading to an uptick in extreme rainfall events. These events can trigger landslides, increase the rate of soil erosion, and damage crops – just one example of how climate change can cause a chain reaction.
For the billions of people who live in “drylands”, climate change is serving up a completely different scenario:
“Heatwaves are projected to increase in frequency, intensity and duration in most parts of the world and drought frequency and intensity is projected to increase in some regions that are already drought prone.”
— IPCC report on Climate Change and Land, 2019
This is particularly worrisome as 90% of people in these arid or semiarid regions live in developing economies that are still very reliant on agriculture.
In addition to water scarcity, the IPCC has identified a number of other categories, including soil erosion and permafrost degradation. In all seven categories, our current global temperature puts us firmly in the moderate to high risk zone. These risks predict events with widespread societal impact, such as regional “food shocks” and millions of additional people exposed to wildfires.
This IPCC report makes one thing clear. In addition to tackling emissions in our cities and transportation networks, we’ll need to substantially change the way we use our land and rethink our entire agricultural system if we’re serious about mitigating the impact of climate change.
What are the Most Produced Cash Crops in Africa?
From wheat to cassavas, also known as yuca, here are the top cash crops in Africa and their share of global production.
What are the Most Produced Cash Crops in Africa?
Agriculture makes up nearly 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy—a higher percentage than any other region worldwide.
From Nigeria to the fertile land across the East African Rift Valley, the continent is home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.
Given the massive role of agriculture across the region, this infographic from Zainab Ayodimeji shows the most produced cash crops in Africa and their share of total global production.
The Top 20 Cash Crops in Africa
Cash crops, such as coffee or rice, are crops that are produced for a salable market.
With data from the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT), here are the most produced cash crops in Africa:
Tonnes Produced 2019
% of World Production
Rice, paddy (rice milled equivalent)
|Oil palm fruit||21.9M||5%|
|Groundnuts, with shell||16.6M||34%|
Cassava, also referred to as yuca, is the most produced cash crop by a wide margin. With nearly 200 million tonnes of it produced annually, Africa’s production of cassava makes up a majority (63%) of the global total.
While cassavas are not well known in the Western world, they feed 800 million people globally. Cassavas are an essential root vegetable that has similar uses to potatoes.
Sugar cane, maize, and yams are also significant cash crops.
Notably, Africa’s yam production is 97% of the global total. West Africa is known as the “yam belt,” covering Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire. With over 60 million people across the yam belt directly or indirectly involved in its production, yam cultivation is an important component of the region’s economic vitality.
Agriculture Composition of GDP, by Region
While agriculture plays a significant role in Africa’s GDP, what role does it play across other regions around the world?
Like Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is a major part of South Asia’s economy. India produces nearly 24% of rice around the world, while Bangladesh produces over 7% of total global production. Meanwhile, over 14% of the global wheat supply is also produced by India.
On the other hand, agriculture makes up just 1% of North America’s GDP. The number of farms in the U.S. peaked in the 1930s and has sharply declined from almost 7 million to 2 million in 2020.
The Future of Africa’s Cash Crops
Despite Africa’s expansive agriculture sector, there remain bottlenecks to productivity.
In light of these challenges, several technological advances have the potential to improve farmers’ bottom lines. For instance, precision technology measures rainfall, soil information, and soil productivity. At the same time, remote sensing technology can provide information on weather and climate.
This, coupled with the majority of the world’s uncultivated arable land, presents a significant opportunity for cash crops going forward. By one estimate, cereal and grain production has the potential to increase threefold.
Visualizing the World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age
How much has the world’s land use changed over the last 10,000 years, and how have forests been impacted?
Visualizing The World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age
How much of Earth used to be covered by forests, and what portion is covered today?
The effects of deforestation on the climate are already being seen and felt, and these repercussions are expected to increase with time. That’s why more than 100 world leaders pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 at the COP26 climate summit.
As today’s graphic using data from Our World in Data highlights, the world’s forests have been shrinking since the last ice age at an increasingly rapid pace.
Earth’s Surface Area: 10,000 Years Ago
To examine the deforestation situation properly, it helps to understand Earth’s total available surface area. After all, our world can feel massive when glancing at maps or globes. But of the roughly 51 billion hectares in total surface area on Earth, more than 70% is taken up by oceans.
What’s left is 14.9 billion hectares of land, not all of which is habitable. Here is how the land was allocated 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age and before the rise of human civilizations.
Uninhabitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):
- Barren land (19% or 2.8bn ha)—Includes deserts, salt flats, exposed rocks, and dunes
- Glaciers (10% or 1.5bn ha)—The vast majority concentrated in Antarctica
Habitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):
- Forest (57% or 6bn ha)—Includes tropical, temperate, and boreal forests
- Grassland (42% or 4.6bn ha)—Wild grassland and shrubs
- Freshwater (1% or <510M ha)—Lakes and rivers
By 2018, forests had receded to just 4 billion hectares. What happened?
Forests and Grassland Recede for Agriculture
Once humans figured out how to cultivate plants and livestock for regular sources of food, they needed land to use.
For centuries, the loss of greenery was relatively slow. By 1800, the world had lost 700 million hectares each of forest and grassland, replaced by around 900 million hectares of land for grazing animals and 400 million hectares for crops.
But industrialization in the 1800s rapidly sped up the process.
|Percentage of Habitable Land||1700||1800||1900||1950||2018|
While half of Earth’s loss of forests occurred from 10,000 years ago to 1900, the other half or 1.1 billion hectares have been lost since 1900. Part of this loss, about 100 million hectares, has occurred in the more recent time period of 2000 to 2018.
The biggest culprit?
Though urban land use has rapidly grown, it still pales in comparison to the 31% of habitable land now being used for grazing livestock. Most of that land came at first from repurposed grasslands, but forests have also been cleared along the way.
Where Will Food Come From?
Countries pledging to stop deforestation have two major hurdles to solve: financial and survival.
Firstly, there are many companies, jobs, and economies that rely on producing and marketing goods made from forests, such as lumber.
But more importantly, the world’s rising use of land for crops and agriculture reflects our rapidly growing population. In 1900, the global population numbered just 1.6 billion people. By 2021, it had exceeded 7.9 billion, with hundreds of millions still affected by food shortages every day.
How do you feed so many without needing more land? Meat’s extremely large footprint makes prioritizing crops more attractive, and research into other solutions like lab-grown meat and grazing erosion prevention is ongoing.
As the effects of climate change become increasingly felt, it’s likely that countries, companies, and people will have to embrace many different solutions at once.
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