Warning: Ecosystem Changes Worsen, Putting Development Goals At
by Christian Sarkar
landmark study released today reveals that approximately 60
percent of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth
such as fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water
regulation, and the regulation of regional climate, natural
hazards and pests are being degraded or used unsustainably.
warn that the harmful consequences of this degradation could
grow significantly worse in the next 50 years.
progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger
eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is
unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on
which humanity relies continue to be degraded, said the
study, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report,
conducted by 1,300 experts from 95 countries. It specifically
states that the ongoing degradation of ecosystem services is
a road block to the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by
the world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.
evidence remains incomplete, there is enough for the experts
to warn that the ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystem
services examined is increasing the likelihood of potentially
abrupt changes that will seriously affect human well-being.
includes the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water
quality, creation of dead zones along the coasts,
the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate.
MA Synthesis Report highlights four main findings:
have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the
last 50 years than in any other period. This was done largely
to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber,
fiber and fuel. More land was converted to agriculture since
1945 than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined. More than
half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, first made
in 1913, ever used on the planet has been used since 1985.
Experts say that this resulted in a substantial and largely
irreversible loss in diversity of life on Earth, with some
10 to 30 percent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species
currently threatened with extinction.
changes that have contributed substantial net gains in human
well-being and economic development have been achieved at
growing costs in the form of degradation of other services.
Only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the last
50 years: increases in crop, livestock and aquaculture production,
and increased carbon sequestration for global climate regulation.
Two services capture fisheries and fresh water
are now well beyond levels that can sustain current, much
less future, demands. Experts say that these problems will
substantially diminish the benefits for future generations.
degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse
during the first half of this century and is a barrier to achieving
the UN Millennium Development Goals. In all the four plausible
futures explored by the scientists, they project progress in
eliminating hunger, but at far slower rates than needed to halve
number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. Experts warn
that changes in ecosystems such as deforestation influence the
abundance of human pathogens such as malaria and cholera, as
well as the risk of emergence of new diseases. Malaria, for
example, accounts for 11 percent of the disease burden in Africa
and had it been eliminated 35 years ago, the continents
gross domestic product would have increased by $100 billion.
challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting
increasing demands can be met under some scenarios involving
significant policy and institutional changes. However, these
changes will be large and are not currently under way. The report
mentions options that exist to conserve or enhance ecosystem
services that reduce negative trade-offs or that will positively
impact other services. Protection of natural forests, for example,
not only conserves wildlife but also supplies fresh water and
reduces carbon emissions.
The over-riding conclusion of this assessment is that
it lies within the power of human societies to ease the strains
we are putting on the nature services of the planet, while continuing
to use them to bring better living standards to all, said
the MA board of directors in a statement, Living beyond
Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being. Achieving
this, however, will require radical changes in the way nature
is treated at every level of decision-making and new ways of
cooperation between government, business and civil society.
The warning signs are there for all of us to see. The future
now lies in our hands.
MA Synthesis Report also reveals that it is the worlds
poorest people who suffer most from ecosystem changes. The
regions facing significant problems of ecosystem degradation
sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, some regions in Latin
America, and parts of South and Southeast Asia are also
facing the greatest challenges in achieving the United Nations
Millennium Development Goals. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example,
the number of poor people is forecast to rise from 315 million
in 1999 to 404 million by 2015.
by understanding the environment and how it works, can we make
the necessary decisions to protect it. Only by valuing all our
precious natural and human resources can we hope to build a
sustainable future, said Kofi Annan, secretary general
of the United Nations in a message launching the MA reports.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an unprecedented
contribution to our global mission for development, sustainability
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report is the
first in a series of seven synthesis and summary reports and
four technical volumes that assess the state of global ecosystems
and their impact on human well-being. This report is being released
together with a statement by the MA board of directors entitled
Living beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being.
four-year assessment was designed by a partnership of UN agencies,
international scientific organizations, and development agencies,
with guidance from the private sector and civil society groups.
Major funding is provided by the Global Environment Facility,
the United Nations Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard
Foundation, and The World Bank. The MA Secretariat is coordinated
by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
MA is recognized by governments as a mechanism to meet part
of the assessment needs of four international environmental
treaties the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the
Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification,
and the Convention on Migratory Species. It is supported by
22 of the worlds leading scientific bodies, including
The Royal Society of the U.K. and the Third World Academy of
MAs work is overseen by a 45-member board of directors,
co-chaired by Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist of The World
Bank, and Dr. A. H. Zakri, director of the United Nations Universitys
Institute of Advanced Studies. The Assessment Panel, which oversees
the technical work of the MA, includes 13 of the worlds
leading social and natural scientists. It is co-chaired by Angela
Cropper of the Cropper Foundation, and Dr. Harold Mooney of
Stanford University. Dr. Walter Reid is the director of the
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
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