In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Land Use, Land Cover and Land Management Change: Definitions, Scenarios, and Role in the Climate System

  • Introduction
  • General Overview: Definitions
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Land-Based Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

Environmental Science Land Use, Land Cover and Land Management Change: Definitions, Scenarios, and Role in the Climate System
Wim Thiery, E.L. Davin, S.I. Seneviratne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0103


Using land resources in fulfilment of their needs, humans have either altered land surface properties (land cover changes) or modified characteristics of the existing land cover (land management changes). Nowadays, over 70 percent of the world’s land surface is under direct human influence. Examples of land cover changes include deforestation for cropland expansion, urban growth, or polder drainage. In some cases these land cover changes may induce harmful effects, such as biodiversity losses or increased landslide susceptibility. Human land-use activities have also resulted in large changes to the biogeochemical and biogeophysical properties of the Earth surface, with profound implications for the climate system. Since the start of the industrial revolution, land use changes have been estimated to contribute to about 26 percent of all human-induced emission (145 GtC +/- 50 GtC during the period 1870–2015). Today this contribution has decreased to 9 percent of all anthropogenic emissions (1.0 GtC/yr during the period 2006–2015). As a consequence, it is estimated that 40 percent +/- 16 percent of present-day radiative forcing can be attributed to LCMC. In addition to this biogeochemical effect, land use and land cover changes also affect the climate by modifying the biogeophysical properties of the land surface (e.g., albedo, evapotranspiration, and roughness). While the overall biogeophysical effect of LCMC highly depends on the geographical context, land use and land cover changes may locally affect surface temperature in similar proportions to other climate forcings. Besides land cover changes, whose climatic consequences have been much studied in recent decades, land management changes have recently been advanced as another important human influence on the climate system, with an aggregated impact on surface temperature of similar magnitude as (and sometimes larger than) land cover changes. Given the important effects of land use on climate, and given its substantial historic contribution to global warming, land surface management may be used as a tool to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. Recent evidence suggests that various forms of land-based mitigation may be required for reaching the targets fixed by the Paris Climate Agreement. The way in which humans manage the land surface is therefore inevitably connected to sustainable development and human and societal health.

General Overview: Definitions

As the terminology used in this field of research is regularly a cause of confusion, this overview will provide a few relevant definitions and examples (based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2000): Land cover refers to the physical elements covering the land surface and to their physical properties. Examples of land cover types are trees, crops, grasses, lakes, and cities. Land use refers to the total of arrangements, activities, and inputs undertaken in a certain land cover type (a set of human actions). The term land use is also used in the sense of the social and economic purposes for which land is managed (e.g., grazing, timber extraction, and conservation). It thus denotes how people utilize the land. Examples of land use are agriculture, recreational, transport, and residential. Finally, land management refers to controlling the characteristics of a given land cover without changing the type of land cover. Land management practices aim at the conservation or intensification of existing land use. Examples of land management are forestry, irrigation, tillage, and increased harvest rates through application of fertilizers and pesticides. One single land cover type may thus encompass several land uses (e.g., a forest may be used for recreational, biological conservation, and wood production purposes) and may be managed in several ways (parts of the forest may undergo forestry, other parts not). Land use change refers to a change in the use or management of land by humans, which may lead to a change in land cover. Examples of land cover change are deforestation, reservoir installation, urbanization, or polder drainage, whereas examples of land management changes are irrigation expansion, or the introduction of conservation agriculture. Many acronyms have been introduced in the past to denote the processes described above, such as land use change (LUC, see Le Quéré, et al. 2018); land cover change (LCC, see Luyssaert, et al. 2014); land management change (LMC, see Luyssaert, et al. 2014); anthropogenic land cover change (ALCC, see Davin, et al. 2007 and Pongratz, et al. 2010; land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF, see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014); or agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU, see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014). In this article, the term land cover and land management change (LCMC) will be used consistent with Bright, et al. 2017. Although land cover changes may also result from natural processes, the focus in LCMC is on the consequence of human activities, either directly (e.g., agricultural expansion) or indirectly (e.g., species migration because of anthropogenic climate change). LCMC has manifold consequences, and may induce harmful effects in some cases, such as biodiversity loss, analyzed in Newbold, et al. 2015 and Newbold, et al. 2016; and an increased susceptibility for erosion, flash floods, and landslides, described in Jacobs, et al. 2016a and Jacobs, et al. 2016b. The focus of this article will be on the climatic effects of anthropogenic LCMC.

  • Bright, R. M., E. Davin, T. O’Halloran, J. Pongratz, K. Zhao, and A. Cescatti. 2017. Local temperature response to land cover and management change driven by non-radiative processes. Nature Climate Change 7.4: 296–302.

    DOI: 10.1038/nclimate3250

    Observational study highlighting the importance of LCMC for local climates.

  • Davin, E. L., N. de Noblet‐Ducoudré, and P. Friedlingstein. 2007. Impact of land cover change on surface climate: Relevance of the radiative forcing concept. Geophysical Research Letters 34.13.

    DOI: 10.1029/2007GL029678

    Global climate model study scrutinizing the role of the radiative forcing concept when comparing LCMC to other climate forcings.

  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2000. Land use, land-use change and forestry: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by Robert T. Watson, Ian R. Noble, Bert Bolin, N. H. Ravindranath, David J. Verardo, and David J. Dokken. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Special report by the IPCC describing the issue of defining LCMC.

  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. Climate change 2014: Mitigation of climate change. Contribution of Working Group 3 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by O. R. Edenhofer, Y. Pichs-Madruga, E. Sokona, et al. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The glossary of this report introduces the vocabulary related to LCMC used in the latest IPCC assessment report.

  • Jacobs, L., O. Dewitte, J. Poesen, D. Delvaux, W. Thiery, and M. Kervyn. 2016a. The Rwenzori Mountains: A landslide-prone region? Landslides 13.3: 519–536.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10346-015-0582-5

    Example study of how land cover change may influence the susceptibility of a landscape to landslides. This study was conducted in a very challenging environment.

  • Jacobs, L., J. Maes, K. Mertens, et al. 2016b. Reconstruction of a flash flood event through a multi-hazard approach: Focus on the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda. Natural Hazards 84.2: 851–876.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11069-016-2458-y

    Example study of how land cover change prepares the ground for rainfall events to trigger flash floods with devastating impacts. This study was conducted in a very challenging environment.

  • Le Quéré, C., R. M. Andrew, P. Friedlingstein, et al. 2018. Global carbon budget 2017. Earth System Science Data 10.1: 405–448.

    DOI: 10.5194/essd-10-405-2018

    Annual update of the different components of the global carbon cycle and their respective anthropogenic perturbations.

  • Luyssaert, S., M. Jammet, P. C. Stoy, et al. 2014. Land management and land-cover change have impacts of similar magnitude on surface temperature. Nature Climate Change 4.5: 389–393.

    DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2196

    Landmark study highlighting the Importance of Land Management on the climate.

  • Newbold, T., L. N. Hudson, A. P. Arnell, et al. 2016. Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment. Science 353.6296: 288–291.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2201

    As a follow-up on previous study, Newbold, et al. show that biodiversity losses caused by LCMC extend beyond the planetary boundary for the majority of the earth’s surface. Available online by subscription.

  • Newbold, T., L. N. Hudson, S. L. Hill, et al. 2015. Global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity. Nature 520.7545: 45–50.

    DOI: 10.1038/nature14324

    Analysis of an unprecedentedly large database indicates that LCMC has a detectable negative influence on several biodiversity indicators.

  • Pongratz, J., C. H. Reick, T. Raddatz, and M. Claussen. 2010. Biogeophysical versus biogeochemical climate response to historical anthropogenic land cover change. Geophysical Research Letters 37.8.

    DOI: 10.1029/2010GL043010

    Seminal study comparing the biogeophysical and biogeochemical impacts of LCMC on the climate.

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