Defend Truth


The planet is getting greener

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Remember when the Sahara’s sand dunes were marching unstoppably southwards across the Sahel, and desertification was a bogeyman we caused by our industry and productivity? New research has shown that greenery in the Sahel has been advancing in the last two decades, as it has done worldwide.

Everybody knows the deserts are advancing, don’t they? Warnings about desertification, especially in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, have been around for fifty years.

The concept is part of school curricula, including those in South Africa. Moraig Peden, author of a book on environmental education in South Africa explains: “Current thinking in environmental education has shifted from educating learners … in the environment … to a new approach: education for the environment based on socially critical and constructivist paradigms oriented towards action for social change (her italics)”.

It would be nice, then, if the children were being taught socially critical and constructivist facts, so they can orient themselves towards action for social change that is actually useful. In other words, it would be nice if their education didn’t turn them into neurotic wrecks worrying about doomsday scenarios that simply are not true.

In 1995, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a report that claimed the desert in west Africa was advancing southwards at a rate of 5km per year. It predicted sweeping famines. By the year 2000, it guessed, Africa would be able to feed only 55% of its population, and by 2025, this would have dropped to 40%. It warned that Nigeria’s population would explode to 338 million in 2025, “123 million in excess of its carrying capacity”.

“Africa is the world’s nightmare, a continent of recurrent drought, [and] famine … perpetually dependent on food aid hand-outs with spreading deserts and shrinking forests,” the FAO wrote, calmly.

All these predictions were wrong. And not just a little wrong, but “wrong sign” wrong. In fact, exactly the opposite of the FAO’s predictions happened.

Hunger has not increased in Africa. It has slowly but steadily decreased. Even without counting north Africa, where hunger rates have always been low, the proportion of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has declined from a third in 1990-1992, to less than a quarter today, according to the very same FAO’s 2014 World Food Insecurity report. That is still unacceptably high, of course, but it is a far cry from the ever-worsening situation the FAO predicted.

Today, with only 11 of the 30 years to go, Nigeria’s population is sluggishly creeping towards 180 million. According to the Economist’s World in Figures (2013), it will reach only 229 million by 2025, despite placing 13th on the global fertility rankings, which by the FAO’s own 1995 statistics does not exceed its carrying capacity by much. (And with a record like this, who believes the FAO’s estimates of carrying capacity anyway?)

Most importantly, the Sahel region is not subject to desertification. It’s a cute propaganda term, full of vagueness and very ominous, but it does not describe reality. On the contrary, the Sahel has been getting greener.


Fig 1: There has been more greening than browning worldwide.

According to a 2011 study by Rogier De Jong et al, from which the image above was taken: “Systematic greening has been found in the Sahel, most likely due to climatic variations and recovery from severe droughts. The effects of human-induced land degradation are highlighted by some studies and disputed by others.”

A 2014 study (translation) by Martin Brandt and researchers at the Climate Research Group of the University of Bayreuth confirms De Jong’s finding that the Sahel is not being overrun by desert.

This was known at least long ago as 1998, when a study by Sharon Nicholson and Compton Tucker found: “Our analyses have clearly demonstrated that the extent of the Sahara and the vegetation cover within the Sahelian zone fluctuate from year to year in accordance with the inter-annual variability of rainfall. No progressive change in either the desert boundary or the vegetation cover in the Sahel is evident during the 1980–95 analysis period. Neither has there been a change in the ‘productivity’ of the land, as assessed by the ratio of [vegetation] to rainfall.”

There is little doubt that localised land degradation and deforestation do happen, but the overall trend is positive, not negative. Desertification attributable to climate change or land use changes is not a crisis. On the contrary, whatever climate change there has been has led to higher rainfall, and increased greenery, across all vegetation types, throughout the world.

However, climate change accounts for less than half of the observed increase in greenness, according to Ranga Myneni at Boston University’s Climate and Vegetation Research Group. The rest is attributable to human factors, including not only agriculture, but carbon dioxide emissions themselves. Research by Randall Donohue of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia found that the rise in carbon dioxide levels has led to an average 11% increase in foliage cover, worldwide.

This inconvenient truth makes the story of human impact on the climate and environment rather more complicated than it is typically portrayed. As Brandt says: “Environmental and climate research should not be guided by simplistic slogans like ‘desertification’ or ‘greening the Sahel’.”

The United Nations, that infamous factory of “consensus science” to support ever-more invasive government regulation and grand, expensive public works schemes, disagrees, however. It clings desperately to its buzzwords. It even has a Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), to which South Africa is a signatory, which produces expensive glossy brochures on desertification for its wealthy audience of donors and bureaucrats. Among its flagship projects is the notion of building a Great Green Wall, 15km wide and 8,000km long across all of Africa. The cost of this entirely unnecessary mega-project will be $3 billion.

There’s a lot of money tied up in all this propaganda. As nice as a UN-landscaped Africa will look, however, I can think of a few more important priorities for $3 billion. But then, I am not a sub-contractor producing brochures or planting trees for the United Nations. I care about things that can save lives today, like producing more energy, improving agricultural productivity or fighting disease.

But thanks to the UN and alarmist environmentalists, twelve-year-olds will fear energy, doubt agri-tech, distrust modern medicine, and tell you all about the desert dunes marching south to engulf our forests, farms and homes. That they’re so often demonstrably wrong does not seem to faze the brainwashers of the eco-lobby at all. DM


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