Every year, alarming figures on deforestation find their way into Swedish media. There is only one problem: The figures are simply not right, writes Reidar Persson, from the think tank SIFI.
The most reliable information about the world’s forests comes from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to the latest figures, there are about 4 billion hectares of forest. FAO provides information on the forest land transferred to other land uses such as agriculture (deforestation). Gross deforestation is approximately 8 million hectares per year. Due to plantings and natural regrowth, the net deforestation is only 3.3 million hectares a year (0.08 percent). This information indicates that the development is starting to go in the right direction.
The general public is deceived
However, when information on rainforest deforestation is presented in Swedish media, the information is mostly based on information collected from satellites by the University of Maryland (UMD). One organization using the data from UMD is the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington DC. WRI presents figures showing that approximately 26 million hectares of forest per year are being destroyed globally of which 12 million in the tropics. The general public tends to believe that most things seem to go in the wrong direction and everything seems to be in crisis.
It is worrying to the Swedish forestry community that maps are published showing Sweden as an area where the forest is rapidly disappearing. It is obviously wrong!
The difference between forest and orange grove
In theory, some of the differences between FAO and UMD can be explained by the use of different methods and definitions. Upon closer analysis it turns out, for example, that UMD provides information for all tree-covered land that the satellite can identify. However, UMD is not able to distinguish between forest and an orange grove. Additionally, the information also contains data on the areas where the tree cover has disappeared due to deforestation, fire, clearcutting, infrastructure developments, etc. The result shows higher numbers than FAOs database, which is only showing deforestation.
It would certainly be interesting to know a little more about what is happening with the tree cover across all land. FAO provides information of interest to what is called forest. Does UMD provide information for all tree-covered land that is sometimes claimed by the users of the data? The answer is no! The information is clearly limited by the available equipment used to collect the data.
A compilation of available sources shows that areas where trees and shrubs are an important component cover about 6 – 7 billion hectares.
Around one percent of these tree-covered areas are cut, burned, die or damaged every year. However, the majority of these areas return quickly. Thereby there are probably no major changes in the total biomass of the tree vegetation.
Central park classified as forest
UMD thus only provides limited information for about 60 percent of tree or shrub-covered land. The satellite UMD bases its figures on is apparently only able to see relatively dense wooded areas. Therefore, WRI, for example, only reports on about 75 percent of the land that FAO calls forest (e.g. clearcuts and young plantings are not included). WRI’s tree cover data then theoretically includes parks such as Central Park in New York, groves of oranges, olives, apples, oil palm trees, denser areas of agroforestry, and so on, providing information on an area of 3.9 billion hectares.
Thus, approximately 26 million hectares of this area are de-stocked every year. Is this due to deforestation, fire, insect infestation, logging or planned rejuvenation of old fruit-tree groves? This would be interesting to know more about!
A major problem is that the satellite used by UMD does not see if an area that has been de-treed regains tree vegetation. Does the area of tree-covered land decrease by 26 million ha per year, or will most trees return quickly?
Reasons for publishing incorrect data
Initially, publishing incorrect data was probably due to lack of knowledge. However, the shortcomings of the material have been pointed out by many actors for years. Does this means that the purpose justifies the means of repeating mistakes? There are certainly many actors who frantically claim that reduced deforestation is the solution to the climate crisis. High figures on deforestation (or the number of football fields that disappear) are a strong argument to reach out in the media. The high numbers would, every year, represent destroyed forest areas comparable to the size of Sweden’s forest area! Another logical explanation could be that important financiers want to present catastrophic information on deforestation. Some people want to blame CO2 emissions on alleged less knowledgeable people in developing countries.
So called fake news tends to receive more engagement, but undermines serious media coverage! The most important thing is hardly to produce alarming numbers but to fight fake news and making the complicated reality understandable.
No easy shortcuts
Readers desire disasters and media delivers them. This is what reality looks like. The general public’s knowledge of international forest conditions is probably less apparent than that of a chimpanzee (to traverse Hans Rosling). Does it matter? One problem with incorrect figures on deforestation is that NGOs can spread the message that reduced deforestation is an easy and inexpensive way to reduce CO2 emissions. That is hardly the case.
Drastically reduced CO2 emissions require costly interventions in Sweden and other developed countries. There are no easy and less costly shortcuts!
On the internet we are immersed in fake news. It is a disaster if serious NGOs and think tanks start accepting unreliable practices, and instead work mainly like a lobbying organization. Whom should we then believe in?
It is truly decisive to provide information adapted to pre-defined objectives. Possibly, there may be less funding available for solid empirical work. It is my true conviction that the governmental financiers should carefully consider whether it is appropriate to provide support to organizations that appears to be providing inaccurate information.
A serious think tank about forest and the environment is apparently needed to describe and analyze the complicated reality.
4 May 2020, www.sifi.se