Vegetation forms a main component of the terrestrial biosphere and plays a crucial role in land-cover and climate-related studies. Activity of vegetation systems is commonly quantified using remotely sensed vegetation indices (VI). Extensive reports on temporal trends over the past decades in time series of such indices can be found in literature. However, little remains known about the processes underlying these changes at large spatial scales. In this study, we aimed at quantifying the spatial relationship between changes in potential climatic growth constraints (i.e. temperature, precipitation and incident solar radiation) and changes in vegetation activity (1982–2008). We demonstrate an additive spatial model with 0.5° resolution, consisting of a regression component representing climate-associated effects and a spatially correlated field representing the combined influence of other factors, including land-use change. Little over 50% of the spatial variance could be attributed to changes in climatologies; conspicuously, many greening trends and browning hotspots in Argentina and Australia. The nonassociated model component may contain large-scale human interventions, feedback mechanisms or natural effects, which were not captured by the climatologies. Browning hotspots in this component were especially found in subequatorial Africa. On the scale of land-cover types, strongest relationships between climatologies and vegetation activity were found in forests, including indications for browning under warming conditions (analogous to the divergence issue discussed in dendroclimatology).