How Much Land Is There On Earth, & What Is It Used For?

In this guide we outline how much land there is on Earth, and also what it’s used for.

We look at some important stats such as total land, total habitable land, as well as %’s of agricultural land and arable land.

We’ve also outlined what the major uses of land are on both a global and country level.

*Note that these numbers are estimates, and are to be used as a general guide only.

 

Summary – How Much Land Is There On Earth? What Do We Use It For?

% of Earth’s Total Surface That Is Land

Most of the Earth’s surface is water (both saltwater, and fresh water bodies)

Only about 29% of the total surface of the Earth is land (such as continents and islands)

 

Types Of Land, & Land Uses

Two of the major types of land on Earth are habitable land (that we can live and produce on), and non habitable land (that we can’t live or produce on, such as glaciers and barren land)

When talking about habitable land, it can be put towards different uses

For example, agricultural land is used for different types of agricultural production

Other uses of land might include forests, shrubland, urban development, and fresh water

(For a closer look at why land and soil are important to society, and the benefits of healthy land and soil, you can read this guide)

 

What Is Habitable Land Used For The Most Globally

According to one source, agriculture is the predominant land use for habitable land globally by far (at 50%), followed by forests (37%), and then shrubland (11%)

According to another source that doesn’t distinguish between habitable land and all land on Earth, they provide the following proportions for the world’s land areas – Other land 31%, Forest area 31%, Meadows and pastures 26%, and Arable land and crops 12%.

Specifically with agriculture, a few other sources put total agricultural land use closer to the combined 38% mark from the second source.

 

What Is Land Used For The Most In The United States

Using the United States as one example of what a country uses most of it’s land for…

Pasture/rangeland, forest and cropland (in that order from first to third) are the major land uses in the US across all States, in terms of total acreage. 

So, the United States’ land uses mimic the global land use %’s.

 

Different Continents & Countries Have Different Land Use Proportions

Various data sets show that different continents and countries use their land for the different land uses in different proportions.

Just one example of this is the difference between how much land the United States and Australia use for forests (Australia much less, and the US much more).

 

Agricultural Land

Agricultural land can be divided into:

– Pasture/grazing/rangeland used for livestock rearing, and meat, dairy and animal product production

– Cropland/arable land used for crop production

Read more about a more detailed description of agricultural land, how much is pasture land vs cropland, how much we have left on Earth, and a breakdown of other relevant agricultural land information in this guide

 

Forestland

Forestland is land that mostly contains trees.

Trees can be native, or they can be plantation forests grown for the purpose of producing wood and other materials.

There are different types of native forests, such as tropical, temperate, boreal and so on.

Land used for forests and trees provides a number of benefits.

Deforestation, as well as reafforestation (and the mass planting of trees), and land re-greening projects can impact the amount of forest land on Earth.

 

Scrubland

Usually land that contains vegetation that is not considered forest.

Scrub vegetation might include bushes, grasses, low trees, and so on.

 

Urban Development Land

Land used for human settlement, and where human populations are most dense.

Includes places like cities and towns.

There’s a difference between the most built up inner city and town residential areas, and the outer rural residential areas.

 

Freshwater Land

Includes fresh water sources that are surface water sources like rivers and lakes

 

Special Use & Miscellaneous Land Use 

Includes land that doesn’t fit into the other areas of land use.

Can include land used for airports, parks, wildlife conservation, infrastructure like highways and railroads, marshes and deserts, and so on

 

Classification Of Land Uses

Different countries and regions might have slightly different classifications and definitions for different land uses.

So, this is important to cross check when comparing different countries and regions.

 

How Much Of The Earth’s Surface Is Land?

Of the land’s total surface, about 29% of that surface is land, and 71% is ocean

Read more about the quantities that make up those %’s in the OurWorldInData and FAO resources

You can read more about the how much water there is on earth in this guide.

 

How Much Habitable Land Is There On Earth?

About 71% of the total land surface on earth is habitable, with the rest being glaciers (10%) and barren land (19%).

The quantities that make up those %’s can be found in the OurWorldInData and FAO resources

 

What Is The World’s Habitable Land Used For?

According to one source:

Agriculture is the predominant land use for habitable land by far, followed by forests, and then shrubland.

Urban development and freshwater uses only make up 2% together.

 

According to another source that doesn’t distinguish between habitable land and the world’s total land:

Agricultural land, forest land and ‘other’ land all make up around the same proportions of the world’s total land uses

 

About 50% of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, 37% for forests, 11% for shrubland, 1% for urban development, and 1% is freshwater

You can read more about the %’s and quantities that make up those land uses in the OurWorldInData and FAO resources

 

According to fao.org, the world’s land is proportioned into the following major uses:

Other land 31%, Forest area 31%, Meadows and pastures 26%, and Arable land and crops 12%

 

Major Uses Of Land In The United States

Using the United States as one example of what a country uses it’s land for, pasture/rangeland, forest and cropland are the major land uses in the US across all States, in terms of total acreage.

Special use, miscellaneous and urban came in third through sixth.

 

The US Department of Agriculture has identified six major types of land use in the US.

Acreage statistics for each type of land use in the contiguous 48 states in 2017 were as follows:

Pasture/range: 654 M

Forest: 538.6 M

Cropland: 391.5 M

Special use: 168.8 M

Miscellaneous: 68.9 M

Urban: 69.4 M 

– wikipedia.org

 

Different Countries & Continents Have Different Land Use Proportions

Something worth noting is that each country and continent uses their land in different proportions for the different land uses.

FAO.org has a good graphic that shows the different land use proportions for Africa, The Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.

On the country, the wikipedia.org and soe.environment.gov.au resources show that Australia and the United States use different proportions of land for forestry (both native and plantation forests). Australia uses far less.

 

What Is Agricultural Land?

Agricultural land includes:

– Arable land (cropland) used for crop production (usually with suitable soil conditions for crop production)

Of the land used for crops, some types of crops such as wheat, maize, rice and barley take up much more total and proportional cropland than others

 

– Pasture, grazing and range land that can be used for rearing and production of livestock

 

Read more about a more detailed description of agricultural land, how much we have left on Earth, and a deeper breakdown of agricultural land on Earth (and how we use it) in this guide

 

What Is Forestland?

Forests are generally land that contains mostly trees (of certain density, height, and so on)

Forest land can include native forests, and also plantation forests.

In general, forest land offers benefits including but not limited to:

– providing much of the world’s biodiversity

the trees in a forest produce oxygen, but also act as a carbon sink

– contribute to soil health, water quality, and other ecosystem support functions

– providing people an income and livelihood in both developing countries and developed countries (plantation forests used for wood are a key way of earning an income in developed countries)

– providing medicinal plants from tropical rainforests

 

According to wikipedia.org, more than half the world’s forests are found in Brazil, Canada, China, Russian Federation and United States of America.

Additionally, forests can be divided into tropical, boreal, temperate and subtropical domains.

 

Deforestation is one of the major threats to forests and trees worldwide, with land use conversion from forests to land used for agriculture being a major cause of deforestation.

 

What Is Scrubland?

Generally land that contains vegetation that is not forests and high trees.

It might include land that has grasses, bushes, low trees, scrub, and so on.

 

What Is Land Used For Urban Development?

Urban land use is the use of land for human settlement, where human populations are usually most dense.

They include places like cities, towns, and other settlements.

There is a distinction between the intensive and built up inner urban residential land, but also the outer rural residential land.

 

What Is Land Used For Freshwater?

Land used for fresh surface water sources such as rivers, lakes, and so on.

 

What Is Land Used For Miscellaneous & Special Use?

Each country or region might have a different set of inclusions for miscellaneous and special use land.

Can include land uses such as national and state parks, mining and waste sites, wildlife and conservation areas, indigenous land, infrastructure like highways and railroads, military bases, airports, cemeteries, golf courses, marshes and swamps, deserts, and so on.

 

Sources

1. https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets ( by Hannah Ritchie)

2. https://data.worldbank.org/

3. https://sciencing.com/much-earths-land-farmable-16685.html

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_valuable_crops_and_livestock_products

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_use_statistics_by_country

6. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.AGRI.ZS

7. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.ARBL.ZS?view=chart 

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-much-land-in-the-world-is-used-for-agriculture-do-we-have-enough-arable-agricultural-land-left-for-food-other-resources-in-the-future/

9. http://www.fao.org/resources/infographics/infographics-details/en/c/174171/

10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_use

11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest

12. https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/land/topic/land-use-and-management

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