Hundreds of millions of hectares of cropland have been abandoned globally since 1950 due to demographic, economic, and environmental changes. This abandonment has been seen as an important opportunity for carbon sequestration and habitat restoration; yet those benefits depend on the persistence of abandonment, which is poorly known. Here, we track abandonment and recultivation at 11 sites across four continents using annual land-cover maps for 1987–2017. We find that abandonment is largely fleeting, lasting on average only 14.22 years (SD = 1.44). At most sites, we project that >50% of abandoned croplands will be recultivated within 30 years, precluding the accumulation of substantial amounts of carbon and biodiversity. Recultivation resulted in 30.84% less abandonment and 35.39% less carbon accumulated by 2017 than expected without recultivation. Unless policymakers take steps to reduce recultivation or provide incentives for regeneration, abandonment will remain a missed opportunity to reduce biodiversity loss and climate change.
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