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TEEB report has multiple errors in first chapter alone, Part #2

11 Jun

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, 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).

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 http://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, publicspirited
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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7 Comments

Posted by on June 11, 2010 in UN

 

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7 responses to “TEEB report has multiple errors in first chapter alone, Part #2

  1. John Marshell

    June 12, 2010 at 4:33 am

    The use of fossil evidence for species number is not of any use because preservation as a fossil depends on hard skeletal parts to fossilize. It also depends on the conditions at time of death and the environment. Sea animals have the highest chance of preservation because burrial can be swift and preservation more certain. Land animals can die and scavengers scatter body parts and preservation becomes unlikely. So to estimate species extinction is therefore frought with error. We do not even know how many species were alive in prehistoric times let alone know extinction rates. This figure may have reduced due to human intervention we just cannot know and neither can this be modeled since models need accurate information to work on and need to be realistic to begin with.

     
  2. Donna Laframboise

    June 12, 2010 at 9:10 am

    “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.”

    Great stuff! Perhaps we need a watchdog/fact-checking bureau devoted to UN-produced documents. If there was funding out there for such a project, I’d nominate you to be the first hire 🙂

     
  3. TEEB Scientific Coordination

    July 6, 2010 at 4:57 am

    Dear Sam, Thank you for your feedback on Chapter 1 references in TEEB’s “Interim Report” of May, 2008. It is heartening to note your in-depth study of this report. You raised some valid points, which have now been addressed in a note appended to this Interim Report (see : ‘Corrigendum and Additional References’, TEEB Interim Report, http://www.teebweb.org ). Kind Regards, TEEB Scientific Coordination, teeb@ufz.de

     

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