Dr Alan Grainger

Dr Alan Grainger


I joined the University of Leeds in 1992. I had previously held lecturing positions at the University of Salford and the University of Stirling.

My research focuses on increasing knowledge about two global environmental change phenomena, tropical forest change and desertification. It involves: (i) modelling global environmental change; (ii) evaluating uncertainties about the magnitude of this change; and showing how to reduce these uncertainties by (iii) improving planetary measurement and (iv) achieving better science-policy communication. Two early overview books, Controlling Tropical Deforestation (1993) and The Threatening Desert: Controlling Desertification (1990), are both still in print (Routledge).

I have been external examiner of Ph.D theses at the University of Aberdeen, University of Cambridge, University of Leicester, University of Newcastle and Bangor University. I have also been external examiner of an MA course at the University of Sussex.

I am a member of the editorial boards of the journals Land Degradation and Development, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews and Environmental Management.

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification is one of a number of governmental and intergovernmental bodies which I have advised. I was the Rapporteur of its Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Scientific Advice and a member of its Science-Policy Interface.


  • Academic Integrity Officer

Research interests

My research into tropical forest change and desertification involves: (i) modelling global environmental change; (ii) evaluating uncertainties about the magnitude of this change; and showing how to reduce these uncertainties by (iii) improving planetary measurement and (iv) achieving better science-policy communication.

1. Modelling global environmental change

I have carried out research into the change in national forest cover since the early 1990s, when it was proposed by Alexander Mather. My current research focuses on developing the theory of the forest transition (Barbier et al., 2010) and studying the nature of the transition itself, which I have found to be

Achieving sustainable forest management is crucial if a country is to pass through its forest transition. With my Ph.D students I have shown that in Africa this often depends on interactions between formal and informal repeated practices, or institutions (Grainger and Konteh, 2007).

Modelling the processes underlying desertification in dry areas, and land degradation generally, is more complicated than modelling deforestation. However, there are various parallels between them, and I am building on these in my research on the new concept of , devised by Luc Gnacadja (Grainger, 2015).

I also model the future impacts of global climate change on biodiversity. Colleagues and I have predicted that up to 43% of all plant species in Amazonia could become non-viable in their present locations in the 21st Century (Miles et al., 2004) and that up to 37% of all species in the world could be committed to extinction by 2050 (Thomas et al., 2004). My current research is examining what might happen to species that are resilient to these impacts and assessing the consequences for tropical forest ecosystems.

By shifting the distribution of ecosystems on the surface of our planet global climate change is leading to a profound change in global ecology. Elizabeth Wolkovich has proposed that this involves a switch from a condition of dynamic condition of have proposed that new AnthropoceneThe Ecology and Global Change cluster has international expertise in studying the impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change on terrestrial ecosystems, and my own research is part of a wider Anthropocene initiative within the cluster.

2. Evaluating global environmental uncertainties

After evaluating the uncertainties associated with specific estimates of tropical forest area change for many years I began to link these uncertainties to the processes by which estimates are produced (Grainger, 2007, 2008). My current research focuses on searching for patterns and structure in uncertainties about not just single attribute global environmental phenomena, such as tropical forest area change, but also phenomena with multiple attributes, such as changes in tropical forest biodiversity and carbon stocks. I have shown how uncertainties are related to the complexity of phenomena, difficulties in converting global data collected by satellites into usable global information, and compartmentalization between different scientific disciplines which study particular attributes (Grainger, 2010).

3. Improving planetary measurement

To tackle these problems, I have called for the establishment of a family of global environmental observatories, which could channel usable digital information on changes in forests, biodiversity, carbon stocks, and desertification to scientists studying these phenomena (Grainger, 2009). My initial focus has been on establishing a World Forest Observatory, and with the help of funding from the Science and Technology Research Council and collaboration with astronomers, I have explored through the ASTROTROP project the potential to use astronomy software as part of such an observatory.

In 2009 I was invited by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to propose a design for the first global empirical survey of desertification status (Grainger, 2009). Later in that year I was a member of a group of scientists convened to give more comprehensive advice to the UNCCD on this topic, and one of its recommendations was the need for a Global Drylands Observing System (Verstraete et al., 2011).

In 2015-16 I and a group of Leeds students participated in an exciting project undertaken by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to map the global distribution of dry forest and tree cover using very high spatial resolution satellite images. We showed that the area of dry forest is similar to the area of tropical moist forest, and by mapping forest that had never been mapped before we concluded that the world has at least 9% more forest than previously assumed (Bastin et al., 2017).

Earth observation now incorporates a greater diversity of sensors than those carried on aircraft and satellite platforms. I have shown how to evaluate the effectiveness with which data collected by different types of sensors are converted into usable information. I have applied this method to a new type of sensor, carried on smartphones by members of citizen observatories (Grainger, 2017).

In 2008 I deduced from available evidence on trends in estimates of tropical forest area that annual rates of reforestation and forest regeneration in the tropics could be much higher than previously assumed (Grainger, 2008). I have since been involved in a number of international initiatives to produce more accurate estimates of these rates. My current research includes devising innovative ways to classify satellite images to distinguish between different types of reforestation and forest regeneration.

The start of negotiations by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on establishing a Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) mechanism, to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from tropical forest change that contribute to global climate change, led to efforts to upgrade existing national forest monitoring systems in tropical countries to become national Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) systems for REDD+. I contributed to an early study on how to do this (Baker et al., 2010) and continue to work on MRV design, for example, by developing new methods to measure tropical forest degradation, which is more difficult than monitoring tropical deforestation.

4. Improving science-policy communication

I have been involved with United Nations activities to combat desertification since their inception. In 2006 I became fascinated by the difficulties which the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) had encountered in accessing reliable scientific knowledge since it came into force in 1996. By applying an existing model of science-policy communication, the boundary organization model devised by David Cash, I was able to suggest how this happened (Grainger, 2009).

In July 2012 I was given a unique opportunity to apply my research findings to tackle this problem when I was invited to become a member of the UNCCD Ad Hoc Working Group on Scientific Advice (AGSA). The UNCCD asked us to devise a new mechanism for science-policy communication, based on the best available scientific knowledge. The boundary organization model and another new concept, multi-level governance were fundamental to our analysis. The AGSA recommended that the UNCCD should introduce a new 'modular mechanism', in which a Science-Policy Interface, jointly coordinated by the UNCCD and scientists, would receive scientific knowledge from an International Non-Governmental Group of Scientists, and from Regional Science and Technology Hubs in each of the UNCCD's five regions (Akhtar-Schuster et al., 2016).

The UNCCD subsequently established a Science-Policy Interface. I was selected to be one of the fifteen scientific members of the Interface in its first mandate period from 2014 to 2017.

Another breakthrough in science-policy communication recently occurred in another UN body, the Food and Agriculture Organization. Since 1981 FAO has published compilations of international forest statistics in a series of Forest Resources Assessments (FRAs) which I have evaluated (Grainger, 2008). However, starting with FRA 2015 FAO decided to report its results not in a single volume published by FAO but in peer-reviewed papers co-written with outside scientists in a special issue of a scientific journal. I was asked to be one of six co-authors of the paper on forest area, which corresponded to the first results chapter of previous FRA reports (Keenan et al., 2015).

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="https://environment.leeds.ac.uk/dir/research-projects">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • B.Sc (Birmingham)
  • D.Phil (Oxon)

Professional memberships

  • Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers
  • Association of American Geographers

Student education

I deliver courses of undergraduate lectures on: the basic principles of human-environment geography (GEOG 1065);  the modelling and monitoring of changes in tropical land use and land cover (GEOG 3690); and the management of global ecosystems through United Nations conventions (GEOG 3180).

Research groups and institutes

  • Ecology and Global Change

Current postgraduate research students

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://environment.leeds.ac.uk/research-opportunities">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>