Global land cover is a key variable in the earth system with feedbacks on climate, biodiversity and natural resources. However, global land cover data sets presently fall short of user needs in providing detailed spatial and thematic information that is consistently mapped over time and easily transferable to the requirements of earth system models. In 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Climate Change Initiative (CCI), with land cover (LC_CCI) as 1 of 13 essential climate variables targeted for research development. The LC_CCI was implemented in three phases: first responding to a survey of user needs; developing a global, moderate-resolution land cover data set for three time periods, or epochs (2000, 2005, and 2010); and the last phase resulting in a user tool for converting land cover to plant functional type equivalents. Here we present the results of the LC_CCI project with a focus on the mapping approach used to convert the United Nations Land Cover Classification System to plant functional types (PFTs). The translation was performed as part of consultative process among map producers and users, and resulted in an open-source conversion tool. A comparison with existing PFT maps used by three earth system modeling teams shows significant differences between the LC_CCI PFT data set and those currently used in earth system models with likely consequences for modeling terrestrial biogeochemistry and land–atmosphere interactions. The main difference between the new LC_CCI product and PFT data sets used currently by three different dynamic global vegetation modeling teams is a reduction in high-latitude grassland cover, a reduction in tropical tree cover and an expansion in temperate forest cover in Europe. The LC_CCI tool is flexible for users to modify land cover to PFT conversions and will evolve as phase 2 of the European Space Agency CCI program continues.