(July 11th 2013. Some of the errors specified in this article have now been corrected by Professor Emmott. Details of these corrections can be found at http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/ten_billion/default.aspx)
(July 12th 2013. Second update. The page of corrections to Professor Emmott's book has now been taken down from the Microsoft website)
(August 23rd 2013. A list of corrections to some of the errors noted in this article has now been posted again at http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/people/semmott/tenbillionbookrevisions.pdf. Thanks to Richard Snape for pointing this out)
Stephen Emmott’s book on global ecological challenges is attracting much attention. The work is extremely short – perhaps about 15,000 words – and is in the form of notes that provide terse commentary on a series of graphs. It is little more than a Powerpoint presentation turned into a slim paperback. Although any attempt to increase mankind’s alarm at the threat from climate change is welcome, Emmott’s book is error-strewn, full of careless exaggeration and weak on basic science. Its reliance on random facts pulled from the internet is truly shocking and it will harm the cause of environmental protection. As might be expected, the best sceptic bloggers are already deconstructing its excesses line-by-line.
Things are indeed pretty bad. The steps to address climate change are lamentably slow and ineffectual. Biodiversity is in sharp decline in some parts of the world. Water supplies are becoming tighter in many countries. The pressures on global forests are declining but still acute in some places. Air quality is appalling in big cities in Asia and quite bad in major Western capitals. But we don’t help solve these problems by exaggerating their seriousness and picking up gobbets of data from dodgy sources we found on the web
All of us see these difficult problems but most see them as soluble. Not so Stephen Emmott. In his eyes the world is hurtling towards disaster at ever-increasing speed. To him, every global issue is of ‘accelerating’ seriousness. At one point the word ‘accelerates’ is used 8 times in just over 100 words to describe a tip into some future hell. (It’s also striking that a senior scientist uses this word inexactly. He generally doesn’t mean that the rate of change is increasing but merely that the particular phenomenon he is worried about is continuing to grow).
Emmott starts by looking at population from the year 10,000 BC. He says he uses data from the UN but I cannot find anything produced by this organisation that records estimates prior to 1950. He seems instead to have employed a file found on the internet at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Population_curve.svg. This file has the unusual features of Emmott’s first chart, such as the use of a year called ‘AD1’. He uses the curve of population growth to tell us we might see a fourfold increase in population by 2100.
Despite Emmott’s assertions to the contrary, population growth has been slowing steadily since the 1960’s. The number of people in the world is increasing by about 1% a year and the slowdown will almost certainly continue. This is never mentioned, let alone discussed by Emmott. Reasonable 2050 predictions are almost all in the 9 to 10 billion range, with most people seeing declines after that date but he tells us that we might actually see 28 billion by 2100. Does he have an argument why his number could be right? No, he just asserts it.
Similarly, he addresses food supply with passionate language and few facts. He ignores the relatively stable and gradual increases in food availability per person over the last half-century and predicts coming apocalypse. A huge increase in land needed for food production is forecast, something completely unpredicted by any experts in the field. He reserves particular scorn for the impact of improved agricultural technologies such as pesticides and fertilisers. ‘The Green Revolution is a myth’ he writes, ignoring the extraordinary and reliable increase in food production launched by the plant breeder Norman Borlaug in India that made famine thankfully rare. His assessments of the need for more land on which to grow crops seem to crudely assume no increase whatsoever in yields per hectare, ignoring reliable evidence since the 1960s.
Very strangely, I don’t think any of of the thirteen apocalyptic charts in his book are taken from primary sources. The data he uses is almost always ‘adapted’ from other work, something which doesn’t appear to embarrass him. The figures employed aren’t traceable and checking is difficult. But those charts that I was able to source are generally mis-drawn or downright misleading. For example, the worrying chart on species extinction on page 54 of the Kindle edition seems to present a sharp, abrupt and catastrophic rise from the year 2045 without any basis in fact or scientific research. Others are similarly invented.
When it comes to discussion of fish production, Emmott shows an equally disturbing lack of knowledge. He writes that a ‘fully exploited’ fishing ground has ‘no fish left’. Actually, the words mean that the rate of fish extraction cannot be increased without loss of long term fish extraction potential.
He’s also worried about water availability. And this is indeed going to be one of the world’s most pressing problems by 2050. But he exaggerates, as in so many other instances, the current seriousness of the issue. Several of his very sparsely filled pages are given over to discussing how much water is needed to grow food but nowhere does he discuss the global availability. Yes, the world does use 6,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water a year but we probably have about twenty times this much available in one form or another. Small improvements in irrigation practices will almost certainly help us decrease water stress in the most threatened global food production areas. I’m not trying to diminish the severity of the challenge but to ask Emmott to give us careful argument, not overplayed assertion.
Although I think that most of what he says on other subjects is ill-researched, most of the readers of this blog will agree strongly with his views on climate change. He exaggerates the likely increase in global energy need - a few well researched charts from the recent BP statistical review would have helped him - but we do face a real likelihood of a 4 degree temperature rise on current trends. Emmott is right to emphasise the weak global response to this threat.
He’s not a fan of renewable energy sources but his opinions are surprisingly casual. PV, for example, is flawed because ‘the production of the new generation of solar panels involves nitrogen triflouride (sic) – one of the most potent greenhouse gases on earth’. Nowhere does he tell us that this molecule has been used for years and that when calculations have been done, the carbon benefit of the renewable electricity generated by the panel dwarfs the global warming impact of the nitrogen trifluoride used. This is typical of the book: lots of strong assertions, no analysis and lots of factual mistakes.
In the end, his ambivalent feelings towards humanity come out all too clearly. Every which way you look at it, a planet of ten billion looks like a nightmare, he writes. I wanted him to come up with solutions to humanity’s problems, not to exhibit a troubling misanthropism and astonishingly careless use of data and basic science.
There are scores and scores of errors and exaggerations in this short book. I’ve mentioned a few of them below to demonstrate the range of surprising misstatements.
(Page numbers refer to the Kindle edition)
Emmott writes (page 50)
During just the past twelve years, almost 50 million hectares of land have been traded. That is an area of land the size of half of western Europe being bought and sold
Depending on which countries you include, 50 million hectares of land is approximately equal to 15% of the land area of western Europe, not 50%. 50million hectares is less than size of France.
Keystone XL pipeline
Emmott says (page 76)
And Barack Obama has committed to extending the importation of tar sands oil from Alberta in Canada to the US through the development of the ‘Keystone XL’ project – providing US consumers with close to one million barrels of oil per day from Canadian tar sands.
President Obama has not committed to Keystone XL. This is how the LA Times reported his comments Tuesday June 25th 2013:
President Obama set a high bar for approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, declaring for the first time that he would let the project go forward only if it does not “significantly increase” emissions of greenhouse gases.
UK oil and gas exploration
Emmott says (page 77)
In the UK, despite its stated commitment to tackling climate change, the British government issued 197 new licences to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea – the largest number since North Sea oil drilling began in 1964.
Emmott appears to be referring to the 2012 North Sea licensing round. His comments seem to have been taken from the Financial Times of October 25th 2012. The paper said
The government has issued 167 new oil and gas licences to companies seeking to drill in the North Sea, in what John Hayes, the energy minister, described as a “bonanza” for the oil industry.
The UK’s 27th licensing round for the North Sea attracted its greatest ever level of interest, with 224 applications – the largest number since offshore licensing began in 1964.
Emmott has made small but sloppy mistakes. The number of licences wasn’t 197, it was 167. The record was not of granted licences but the number of licence applications.
Melting of sea ice
a) Emmott writes (page 108)
Arctic coastlines are retreating by 14 metres per year.
This statement seems to have originated in an Economist article of June 16th 2012 (‘The Melting North). The paper wrote
As their ancient ice buffers vanish, Arctic coastlines are eroding; parts of Alaska are receding at 14 metres (45 feet) a year.
Note that what the Economist said was parts of Alaska, not all Arctic coastlines. The average rate of recession is much, much slower. A 2011 article in Science Daily summarised the conventional view when it wrote (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110417185342.htm)
The coastline in Arctic regions reacts to climate change with increased erosion and retreats by half a metre per year on average.
Emmott exaggerates about thirty fold.
b) Loss of Arctic and Greenland ice
Emmott says (page 108)
Greenland and Arctic ice sheets are now losing some 475 billion tonnes of mass per year into the sea. This is going to contribute to rising sea levels.
Prof Emmott appears to be confusing the Antarctic and the Arctic. The study he seems to be referring to was carried out by Eric Rignot and others (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2011GL046583/full) and refers to the loss of ice from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Arctic ice floats on water and when it melts it does not raise sea levels by a measurable amount.
For the first time, hundreds of plumes of methane – many of them kilometres across – have been observed rising from previously frozen methane stores in the Laptev Sea, off the East Siberian Arctic shelf.
Once again, he doesn’t provide a source for this comment. However he seems to have used research work by Russian scientists from 2012. The Voice of Russia summarised their results as follows.( http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_09_18/Methane-emission-in-the-Arctic-a-possible-key-to-the-global-warming/)
Russian scientists have discovered more than 200 sources of methane emissions in the Arctic, particularly in the north of the Laptev Sea. Two of the methane fields exceed 1 kilometer in diameter, said Igor Semiletov, expedition head aboard the Viktor Buinitsky research vessel. Methane emissions in the Arctic have been observed before and are explained by bacterial activity.
The release of trapped methane from the world’s cold oceans is an extremely serious threat. But Emmott exaggerated the findings of the research, stating, for example, that ‘many’ of the plumes were kilometres across rather than the two mentioned by the researchers. He also incorrectly says that this is the first time the methane has been observed.
Demand for land for food
Emmott writes (page 118)
Yet demand for land for food is going to double – at least – by 2050, and triple – at least – by the end of this century.
Emmott elsewhere tells us that 40% of the world’s land area is used for agriculture (page 155), so it is difficult to see how the numbers above are remotely possible.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) makes regular assessments of the need for arable land to grow food. Land needs are reduced by improving agricultural yields and increased by rising population and increasing space allocation to low productivity uses such as meat production and fruits. The latest assessment for 2030 and 2050 (http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/ap106e/ap106e.pdf) suggests that land use for crop production will rise by 70 million hectares to 2050 from a figure of about 1.6 million hectares today. This means the area under cultivation will increase by slightly less than 5%, not the 100%+ suggested by Emmott.
Emmott writes (page 122)
We currently have no known means of being able to feed ten billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system.
On the contrary, we understand well how to feed people. The current agricultural system has increased productivity for the last fifty years and that increase continues, albeit at a slowing rate. Climate change will probably cause increasing variability of yield but Emmott’s assertion has no substance to back it up.
b) Shortage of phosphates
Emmott asserts (page 129)
The amount of food we produce is almost entirely dependent upon phosphate-based fertilizers. But phosphate reserves are finite, and it is becoming apparent that we are going to run out of it, almost certainly some time this century.
The US Geological service estimates (http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/phosphate_rock/mcs-2013-phosp.pdf) the usage rates of the key minerals and the amount of reserves still in the ground. In the case of phosphate rock it states that annual usage is about 210 million tonnes. World reserves are put at 67 billion tonnes, or enough for 300+ years at current rates. (In mature economies such as the UK demand for phosphates for farming is tending to fall).