WWF Concocts Its Own Beautiful Set of Numbers

Alan Oxley, The Australian

The conservation group has for years been playing fast and loose with the facts.

THE revelation that a World Wildlife Fund report was the source of an insupportable claim that glaciers in the Himalayas were melting rapidly is embarrassing for the body.

The organisation has been silent about this. Little wonder.

Its integrity is important. It is the largest environmental body in the world and has royalty and the cream of society and business on its boards. Its worldwide arms are estimated to turn over about $US400 million ($458m) annually, most from donations, but about 10 per cent is taxpayers’ money.

WWF delivers some reputable and important conservation programs. It’s also an environmental activist. And in that capacity, it evidently has some problems with numbers. Let’s deal with that first.

Bjorn Lomborg, global environmental expert and statistician, reported this problem in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist more than a decade ago. He queried a media release in 1997 by WWF UK that new research showed two thirds of the world’s forests had been lost. The conventional number was 20 to 25 per cent. When Lomborg asked to see the research report, he was told there was none.

That was not the only questionable number. This was the year environmental groups sensationalised Indonesian forest fires as part of a global campaign to pressure poor countries to halt forestry. WWF president Claude Martin declared 1997 “the year the Earth burnt”. He declared more forest was burnt in Indonesia that year than in history.

Lomborg reviewed that number and found: it included a large amount of burnt land that was not forest; it was 10 times larger than the official Indonesian number; each year on average more forest was burnt in China and Russia than Indonesia that year; and fires in Indonesia burnt a bigger area just over a decade earlier.

On WWF claims fires in Brazil were on the same scale, Lomborg found Brazil’s Institute for Environmental Research reported that 72 per cent of the land burnt was not forest, but cleared land.

He also queried claims about the rapid loss of Amazon rainforest, reporting that more than 80 per cent remained intact.

A WWF report released in 2008 claims that 70 per cent of forestry in Papua New Guinea is illegal. It sources the number in a report that states there is no “persuasive or supporting information” to back it.

Recent independent research in Australia indicates that rigorous inspection of exported logs in PNG by auditing firm SGS makes claims of high rates of illegal logging in PNG unlikely. Nevertheless, WWF is using this number to lobby the EU and the Australian government to ban timber imports from PNG.

WWF claims Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Analysis of those claims by World Growth shows they also cannot be supported. One assumption is that forest fires will continue every year at the same rate as the worst high fire years. That is not so.

Last year WWF’s German arm released a report warning parents not to buy children’s books made in China because they will contain fibre from timber illegally logged in Indonesia. The report states 25 per cent of China’s paper pulp comes from Indonesia.

This gives an erroneous impression. Analysis by World Growth concludes that Chinese paper fibre contains at most 3.5 per cent Indonesian fibre. It is also supplied by two large companies, not the small holders who account for most illegal forestry in Indonesia.

WWF’s declared goal is to achieve zero net deforestation worldwide. That sounds noble, do some mistakes with numbers matter? Well, yes. There are serious problems with the goal.

It is not necessary to bring a global halt to deforestation to protect biodiversity.

A decade ago, the Convention on Biodiversity stated that 10 per cent of the world’s forests need to be set aside to protect biodiversity. It reported a few years later that this target had been achieved.

In the poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America on average at least 25 per cent of forest land is set aside. This is more than in Europe and well above the global target.

What would be the effect if developing countries were prevented from converting remaining forest areas to create new plantations and expand farming? Fewer jobs, less prosperity, continuing poverty and higher food prices.

WWF has already been criticised by aid donors for not paying enough attention to poverty alleviation in its programs. This is the fundamental problem here.

WWF is disregarding the leading cause of deforestation. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that between 60 and 70 per cent of forest clearance is by poor people seeking shelter, food and firewood. That is the deforestation it should be targeting.

It should heed the recent pronouncement on CNN by of Africa’s first female Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai, and founder of the Greenbelt movement to address deforestation and halt poverty. WWF’s current programs will prolong poverty.

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