Land degradation is a global issue on par with climate change and loss of biodiversity, but its extent and severity are only roughly known and there is little detail on the immediate processes – let alone the drivers. Earth-observation methods enable monitoring of land degradation in a consistent, physical way and on a global scale by making use of vegetation productivity and/or loss as proxies. Most recent studies indicate a general greening trend, but improved data sets and analysis also show a combination of greening and browning trends. Statistically based linear trends average out these effects. Improved understanding may be expected from data-driven and process-modelling approaches: new models, model integration, enhanced statistical analysis and modern sensor imagery at medium spatial resolution should substantially improve the assessment of global land degradation.