High-value datasets – land use in the EU
This is part of a series of articles showcasing examples of high-value datasets from their different thematic categories. High-value datasets are defined by EU law based on their potential to provide essential benefits to society, the environment and the economy. This series aims to help readers find reliable and accurate information from official sources relating to the availability of various high-value datasets, and to present this information through data visualisation. You can check out the article providing an overview of high-value datasets.
Only datasets specifically defined by law can be considered high-value datasets and, as such, the data presented in this series of articles does not necessarily fall under that definition. Instead, the data has been chosen to be thematically adjacent to high-value datasets and to showcase what can be done with information made available by official EU bodies and EU Member States. The official list of high-value datasets adopted on 12 December 2022 can be found in the legal documents that define these datasets and their characteristics.
Using land cover data in the fight against climate change
Changing the way land is used can significantly contribute to fighting climate change. The Council of the European Union and the European Parliament have recently reached a provisional political agreement on strengthening the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector’s contribution to the EU’s climate ambition for 2030. The LULUCF sector, which includes the use of soils, trees, plants, biomass and timber (all of which are examples of carbon sinks), is responsible for both emitting and absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Carbon sinks are natural or artificial reservoirs that store CO2 from the atmosphere. These sinks can absorb CO2 through natural processes (such as photosynthesis) or human interventions (such as reforestation and afforestation). Carbon sinks are critical to regulating the balance of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere, as they can help offset greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation.
The political agreement sets an overall EU-level objective of 310 million tonnes CO2 equivalent of net removals in the LULUCF sector by 2030. By progressively increasing absorptions and reducing emissions, the EU can achieve its climate goals, including carbon neutrality, and protect our planet from the negative consequences of climate change.
To understand how land is used in the EU there are several data sources provided by many different official bodies. Moreover, the topic was included in the official list of high-value datasets, specifically in the ‘Earth observation and environment’ category. As stated in the annex to the Commission implementing regulation, this category includes ‘Earth observation, including space-based or remotely-sensed data, as well as ground-based or on-site data, environmental and climate datasets within the scope of the INSPIRE data themes’.
Land cover, as defined by Annex II to the INSPIRE directive, includes ‘physical and biological cover of the Earth’s surface including artificial surfaces, agricultural areas, forests, (semi-)natural areas, wetlands, water bodies’. The INSPIRE directive aims to create an EU spatial data infrastructure for the purposes of EU environmental policies and activities which may have an impact on the environment. As is the case for other datasets, the inclusion of land cover in the list of high-value datasets sets a high standard about how the data has to be produced, described through its metadata and disseminated to the public with a free, open-source licence.
For a general overview about how the land is used in the EU, a good starting point is Eurostat’s database. The statistical agency offers both a detailed explanation of the facts, in its ‘Statistics explained’ section, and the downloadable underlying data. The EU has a diverse range of landscapes, from sub-Arctic tundra environments in the north to semi-arid conditions in the south, with varying forest structures in different regions. European landscapes are also characterised by rapid changes in bio-physical coverage, such as crops, grass, forests, buildings and roads, within small areas.
One of the datasets made available by Eurostat can give a bird’s-eye view of the continent, showing at a glance how diverse land use can be from one country to another. In 2018, woodland covered the largest share of EU land (41.1 %), followed by cropland (24.2 %), grassland (17.4 %), shrubland (5.7 %) and artificial areas (4.2 %). Other than those, there are dozens of other smaller land cover categories that can be explored through this dataset, ranging from different types of crops to small or large buildings or water bodies.
The following visualisation shows the five most important land cover categories.
The aforementioned dataset is based on the ‘Land use / cover area frame statistical survey’, often abbreviated as LUCAS, a field survey programme funded and executed by Eurostat. LUCAS data goes back as far as 2009 and can be used to understand how land use has changed over time on a regional level.
The following visualisation shows the starkest changes in EU regions for the main five land cover categories. It highlights the regions that became more and less urban over time, along with others where forests and other natural areas grew or shrank significantly in the last decade.
Using Copernicus data for detailed analysis
Land use changes such as reforestation and afforestation can increase the amount of CO2 absorbed by vegetation and soil, which helps to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This is one way the EU plans to fight climate change in the coming years.
As Eurostat data shows, some EU regions have indeed experienced a large growth in the presence of natural land cover, such as woodlands. In parts of south-western Europe, such as the Spanish region of Extremadura and the Portuguese regions of Alentejo and Algarve, the share of land covered by woodlands has increased significantly. The same is true for highly urbanised regions such as Berlin and Lisbon, in which there are now more woodland-covered areas than there were a decade ago.
Satellite data provided by Copernicus’ Corine land cover (CLC) inventory allows for a hyper-local view of this change. Initiated in 1985, and with updates made available every 6 years from 1990 up to 2018, CLC can map land up to a width of 25 hectares for areal phenomena and 100 metres for linear phenomena. This makes it possible to really zoom in on EU land and understand how its use has changed, street by street.
Land cover datasets on data.europa.eu
Using appropriate search keywords such as ‘land cover’ or ‘land use’, the data.europa.eu portal offers a large number of datasets uploaded by national authorities in Member States. Examples include agricultural and non-agricultural land use in Slovakia, land use by type in Germany, a very detailed dataset of land use in the Basque region (Spain) and land cover in Brno (Czechia).
The following visualisation showcases two other detailed datasets available on the portal, which show the features of Provence (France) and Luxembourg.
Other land use data providers
Land use is a significant topic of research and, as such, it is covered by a wide array of EU data providers. Among them are the European Environmental Agency, which offers data, along with articles, research and publications.
The Joint Research Centre produced several datasets about land cover, which include the Luisa base map – a high-resolution land use / cover map and an improvement of the CLC map.
In addition to the CLC data, Copernicus makes other useful information available. On the ‘Land use cases’ page, for example, they show how their data has been used by other EU bodies for different kinds of research.
Also worth noting is the work of the European Space Agency, which has a specific website section about land cover and allows European Space Agency climate change initiative data – a global monitoring of essential climate variables – to be downloaded.
The European Forest Institute (EFI) manages various online databases containing data and information relating to different aspects of European forests, forestry and forest research. These databases may have originated from either the EFI’s core activities or various projects. The information within these databases is often utilised in performing the EFI’s research duties.
The Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development website has a section dedicated to land used for agriculture and forestry, both of which significantly influence the environment and climate.
The map that uses Copernicus’ CLC data shows the following categories of land use: broad-leaved forest, coniferous forest and mixed forests.
To download the visualisations, click on the following: HVD overview, land cover categories, land cover overview, land cover change, woodlands change, land use Luxembourg and Provence.
To download the data behind the visualisations, click on the following: land cover data
Article by Davide Mancino
Data visualisations by Federica Fragapane