TEEB report has multiple errors in first chapter alone, Parts #1 & 2

Source: Climate Quotes

Source: #2 Climate Quotes

It’s been quiet here for over a month. This has been a busy time for me, I am now a college graduate (and looking for a job, know of any?). I intend to continue posting however, and when I saw a headline article on climate depot a while ago I dug a little deeper into the story.

This article from the Guardian talks about new UN biodiversity report. It’s worth reading. Here is an interesting quote:

The report will advocate massive changes to the way the global economy is run so that it factors in the value of the natural world. In future, it says, communities should be paid for conserving nature rather than using it; companies given stricter limits on what they can take from the environment and fined or taxed more to limit over-exploitation; subsidies worth more than US$1tn (£696.5bn) a year for industries like agriculture, fisheries, energy and transport reformed; and businesses and national governments asked to publish accounts for their use of natural and human capital alongside their financial results.

Shock! The UN is using protection of the natural world as a reason to make massive changes to the global economy? This sounds familiar, which I’m sure is why Morano posted it. Whenever the UN puts out a report that involves the world spending a lot of money, I get suspicious, so I decided to take a look at the interim report (the final isn’t going to be published until later this year). Here is the report.

I started at Chapter 1. On the second page of Chapter 1 (page 12 on the pdf) there is a short list of items showing how the earth has lost its biodiversity:

However, the levels of many of the benefits we derive from
the environment have plunged over the past 50 years as
biodiversity has fallen dramatically across the globe. Here are
some examples:

• In the last 300 years, the global forest area has shrunk
by approximately 40%. Forests have completely
disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 countries
have lost more than 90% of their forest cover. The
decline continues (FAO 2001; 2006).

• Since 1900, the world has lost about 50% of its
wetlands. While much of this occurred in northern
countries during the first 50 years of the 20th century,
there has been increasing pressure since the 1950s for
conversion of tropical and sub-tropical wetlands to
alternative land use (Moser et al. 1996).

• Some 30%of coral reefs – which frequently have even
higher levels of biodiversity than tropical forests – have
been seriously damaged through fishing, pollution,
disease and coral bleaching (Wilkinson 2004).

• In the past two decades, 35% of mangroves have
disappeared. Some countries have lost up to 80%
through conversion for aquaculture, overexploitation
and storms (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
2005a).

• The human-caused (anthropogenic) rate of species
extinction is estimated to be 1,000 times more rapid
than the “natural” rate of extinction typical of Earth’s
long-term history (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
2005b).

If you read this list you can see why we need to take urgent action. Forests have disappeared in 25 countries, and in 29 they have lost 90% of their forests. Half of the worlds wetlands have gone in only a century. Species are going extinct 1,000 times more quickly because of humans. This is frightening.

This also sounds familiar. Making startling claims about how much damage humans are doing to our planet is nothing new. But just because something is startling doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and these claims have citations, so let’s look at them.

The source for the claims about the 30% reduction of coral reefs isn’t peer-reviewed, but otherwise it at least matches the source.

The source for the claims about Mangroves isn’t peer reviewed, although that source references a Science article, and the claim does match the source. So far, two of these five claims at least match their source.

However, the rest are all estimations or patently false. Not only that, but none of the references for the entire first chapter of the TEEB report are peer-reviewed. They are nearly all (UN) government reports or environmental institute reports. Not only do they entirely rely on non-peer-reviewed material, but their claims don’t even match their cited sources. Let’s start with the first claim:

” In the last 300 years, the global forest area has shrunk
by approximately 40%. Forests have completely
disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 countries
have lost more than 90% of their forest cover. The
decline continues (FAO 2001; 2006).”

FAO 2001 and 2006 are referenced as:

FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations (2001) Global Forest Resources Assessment
2000. [Found here]

FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations (2006) Global Forest Resources Assessment
2005. [Found here]

None of these claims are in the FAO reports. In fact, one of the claims is roundly contradicted by their own source. They claim that “Forests have completely disappeared in 25 countries”, yet the FAO report says (page 14 of 2005 report):

“Seven countries or areas have no forest at all, and an additional 57
have forest on less than 10 percent of their total land area.”

This is repeated and gone into more depth in the report but the numbers are the same. Only 7 countries are without forests, not 25. The other claims are not in the report, the article doesn’t talk about forest loss before the 1940′s when countries started to report the state of their forests. Also, there is no mention at all of “another 29 countries have lost more than 90% of their forest cover”. Where did these claims come from?

Another UN document. Surprised? This time it is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Chapter 21, Forest and Woodland Systems. Here is part of the first claim in the ‘Main Messages’ section at the beginning of the document:

In the last three centuries, global forest area has been reduced by approximately 40%, with three quarters of this loss occurring during the last two centuries. Forests have completely disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 countries have lost more than 90% of their forest cover.

This is practically verbatim to the TEEB claim. They clearly cited the wrong source.

The claim itself is suspect. The first part, about 40% reduction, appears here (pg. 588):

From today’s perspective, however, preagricultural impacts on
overall forest cover appear to have been slight. Since that time,
the planet has lost about 40% of its original forest (high certainty),
and the remaining forests have suffered varying degrees of fragmentation
and degradation (Bryant et al. 1997; Matthews et al.
2000; Ball 2001; Wade et al. 2003). Most of this loss has occurred
during the industrial age, particularly during the last two centuries,
and in some cases much more recently. Some analyses have
yielded substantially smaller estimates. Richards (1990), for example,
estimates global loss of forests to have been only about 20%.

Just reading this leads to some uncertainty, they admit that some research indicates that it has only been 20% loss. Also, all of those references (except Wade et al. 2003) are done by environmental groups. But the real deception is in the statistic itself. The implication of including this statistic is that this loss of forest is bad, but clearly this isn’t the case as the study itself admits in the very next sentence:

Much of the progress of human civilization has been made possible by the conversion of some forest areas to other uses, particularly for agricultural expansion.

Even if the 40% statistic is accurate, it is hardly a cause for concern in and of itself. It reflects mankind’s progress to this point, to be able to tame the outdoors and provide ourselves with food.

The second half of the claim “Forests have completely disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 countries have lost more than 90% of their forest cover” is not mentioned in the report at all. If you find it in there please let me know. As I mentioned before, it is contradicted by their cited source, which claims only 7 countries have no forest and the FAO report makes no mention of the 90% claim.

I’ll address the other two errors in another post, this one has gotten quite lengthy.

I’m uncertain why, but UN reports seem to have difficulty correctly citing their claims. It doesn’t seem as though using one UN report is any better than using another UN report (FAO paper versus Millennium Assessment), so why can’t they keep their citations straight? Also, the reliance on other UN reports seems to cast serious doubt on the report itself. Of the 16 references for Chapter 1, 7 of them are from UN reports (along with 4 news articles and 5 reports from environmental groups). I don’t know what the full report will look like this summer, but just the very first chapter of this report is pretty pathetic.

Part 2

Yesterday I posted about how the UN TEEB report had an error in the very first chapter relating to forest cover. There are two more errors I’ll cover now, relating to two more items on this scary list:

However, the levels of many of the benefits we derive from
the environment have plunged over the past 50 years as
biodiversity has fallen dramatically across the globe. Here are
some examples:

• In the last 300 years, the global forest area has shrunk
by approximately 40%. Forests have completely
disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 countries
have lost more than 90% of their forest cover. The
decline continues (FAO 2001; 2006).

Since 1900, the world has lost about 50% of its
wetlands. While much of this occurred in northern
countries during the first 50 years of the 20th century,
there has been increasing pressure since the 1950s for
conversion of tropical and sub-tropical wetlands to
alternative land use (Moser et al. 1996).

• Some 30%of coral reefs – which frequently have even
higher levels of biodiversity than tropical forests – have
been seriously damaged through fishing, pollution,
disease and coral bleaching (Wilkinson 2004).

• In the past two decades, 35% of mangroves have
disappeared. Some countries have lost up to 80%
through conversion for aquaculture, over-exploitation
and storms (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
2005a).

The human-caused (anthropogenic) rate of species
extinction is estimated to be 1,000 times more rapid
than the “natural” rate of extinction typical of Earth’s
long-term history (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
2005b).

Let’s take the wetlands claim first. Their reference for the 50% reduction claim is Moser et al. 1996, referenced as:

Moser, M., Prentice, C. and Frazier, S. (1996) A Global
Overview of Wetland Loss and Degradation. Available
at www.ramsar.org/about/about_wetland_loss.htm
(last access 6 May 2008).

That link no longer works, this is the correct link.

However the report was wrong to cite this source, as this claim is only quoted in the article. Here is the excerpt where it was quoted:

In a very generalized overview, OECD (1996) states:

“Some estimates show that the world may have lost 50% of the wetlands that existed since 1900; whilst much of this occurred in the northern countries during the first 50 years of the century, increasing pressure for conversion to alternative land use has been put on tropical and sub-tropical wetlands since the 1950s.

No figures are available for the extent of wetland loss worldwide, but drainage for agricultural production is the principal cause; by 1985 it was estimated that 56-65% of the available wetland had been drained for intensive agriculture in Europe and N America; the figures for tropical and subtropical regions were 27% for Asia, 6% for S America and 2% for Africa, making a total of 26% worldwide. Future predictions show the pressure to drain land for agriculture intensifying in these regions.”

OECD is the correct source. It is referenced in Moser as:

OECD/IUCN. 1996. Guidelines for aid agencies for improved conservation and sustainable use of tropical and sub-tropical wetlands. OECD, Paris.

I found it here. Here is what the source says:

The drainage of wetlands has always been seen as a progressive, public spirited
endeavour which enhanced the health and welfare of society, to alleviate
the dangers of flooding, improve sanitation, and reclaim land for agriculture. Some
estimates show that the world may have lost 50 per cent of the wetlands that existed
worldwide since 1900; whilst much of this occurred in the northern countries
during the first 50 years, increasing pressure for conversion to alternative land-use
has been put on tropical and sub-tropical wetlands since the 1950s. In northern
countries, the consequences of this loss such as decline in fisheries productivity,
greater intensity of major flooding, and loss of biological and landscape diversity,
and amenity value has led to efforts to preserve and restore wetlands.

No figures are available for the extent of wetland loss worldwide, but
drainage for increased agricultural production is the principal cause; by 1985 it was
estimated that 56 – 65 per cent of the available wetland had been drained for
intensive agriculture in Europe and North America; the figures for tropical and
subtropical regions were 27 per cent for Asia, 6 per cent for South America and
2 per cent for Africa, making a total of 26 per cent worldwide. Future predictions
show the pressure to drain land for agriculture intensifying in these regions.
Wetlands may be lost completely by drainage or infilling, but many of the benefits
can be lost even if the wetland itself remains, but in a degraded state. Pollution or
the overuse of wetland products (e.g. by deforestation) are examples of this.

They don’t cite any source for their ‘some estimates show’ claim, but it hardly matters because they openly admit “No figures are available for the extent of wetland loss worldwide”. Remember the original claim:

Since 1900, the world has lost about 50% of its wetlands

From an estimation with no source to a verified fact, in just three sources. This is like a citation version of the telephone game.

Let’s look at the last claim, perhaps the most alarming at first glance:

The human-caused (anthropogenic) rate of species
extinction is estimated to be 1,000 times more rapid
than the “natural” rate of extinction typical of Earth’s
long-term history (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
2005b).

At least they admit this is an estimation (unlike the wetlands), but 1,000 times? That seems significant. Here is the reference:

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005b) Living
Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Wellbeing.
Island Press, Washington DC.

Here it is. At first glance, this seems justified. On page 15 they say this:

Although actual disappearance of a recognized species is quite rare in terms of human time scales, it is estimated that people may have increased the rate of global extinctions by as much as 1,000 times the “natural” rate typical of Earth’s long-term history.

Below that claim is this graphic:

There is a source in the bottom corner, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Here is the chapter on biodiversity.

In it, the following claim appears (emphasis added):

The trend in species extinction rates can be deduced by putting
together extinction rates characteristic of well-recorded lineages
in the fossil record, recorded extinctions from recent times,
and estimated future extinction rates based on the approaches just
described. All these estimates are uncertain because the extent of
extinctions of undescribed species is unknown, because the status
of many described species is poorly known, because it is difficult
to document the final disappearance of very rare species, and because
there are extinction lags between the impact of a threatening
process and the resulting extinction (which particularly affects
some modeling techniques)
. However, the most definite information,
based on recorded extinctions of known species over the
past 100 years, indicates extinction rates are around 100 times
greater than rates characteristic of comparable species in the fossil
record
. Other less direct estimates, some of which refer to extinctions
hundreds of years into the future, estimate extinction rates
1000 to 10,000 times higher than rates recorded among fossil lineages.

The TEEB report is off by a factor of ten. Both the Millenium assessment report and the TEEB report claim 1,000 when the source clearly states 100. Also, notice the very uncertain aspect of obtaining these estimates, and note that yet again they include no citation for these estimations. However, I think I already know where this claim really came from. The 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Global Species Assessment. If anyone is interested, the claim appears on this page in section 3.4 What is the Rate of Extinction? This extinction issue is a bit of a debated topic, with this claim by the IUCN being repeated frequently. Bjørn Lomborg has talked about it in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. All I know is that for such an important claim, there appears to be very little science behind it. The IUCN just does some very simple calculations based on the (estimated) background extinction rate, then compares them to the (estimated) current extinction rate, and claims we are killing the world.

I don’t know the current extinction rate, that isn’t the point. My point is that the TEEB report makes the claim that is ten times higher than its source, the source doesn’t have a source, but the real source of it all is a report with little actual research. Could the extinction rate be 1,000 times higher then historically? Maybe, I don’t think anyone really knows. Should we take action? Maybe, although the largest group of lost species seem to be molluscs (which hopefully won’t result in mankind’s demise). Should we take the recommendation of a UN report which advocates spending trillions of dollars (and euros) annually and can’t even keep its citations straight? No way.

If I’ve read the sources wrong let me know and I’ll admit the TEEB report isn’t full of errors in the first chapter alone. Until someone does, let me say this:

The TEEB report contains multiple errors in the first chapter alone.

Do I have to go through the entire report? This looks like yet another government-created piece of science-plated garbage. It looks like science on the outside, but don’t scratch the surface!

Tomorrow I’ll post about how these claims have spread to show what a danger these pseudo-science reports really can be.

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