Millenium Ecosystem Assessment Highlights Global Decline (BBC Report)

March 30, 2005: Millenium Ecosystem Assessment Highlights Global Decline (BBC Report)

Study highlights global decline
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News science reporter

The world's bulging population has led to the creation of mega-cities
The most comprehensive survey ever into the state of the planet concludes that human activities threaten the Earth's ability to sustain future generations.

The report says the way society obtains its resources has caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth.

This will compromise efforts to address hunger, poverty and improve healthcare.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over a period of four years.

It reports that humans have changed most ecosystems beyond recognition in a dramatically short space of time.

The way society has sourced its food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel over the past 50 years has seriously degraded the environment, the assessment (MA) concludes.

The current state of affairs is likely to be a road block to the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000, it says.

“Any 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,” the report states.

Way forward

The MA is slightly different to all previous environmental reports in that it defines ecosystems in terms of the “services”, or benefits, that people get from them – timber for building; clean air to breathe; fish for food; fibres to make clothes.

The study finds the requirements of a burgeoning world population after WW II drove an unsustainable rush for these natural resources.

Although humanity has made considerable gains in the process – economic growth and food production have continued to rise – the way these successes have been achieved puts at risk global prosperity in the future.

“When we look at the drivers of change affecting ecosystems, we see that across the board, the drivers are either staying steady of increasing in severity – habitat change, climate change, invasive species, overexploitation of resources and pollution such as nitrogen of phosphorus,” said Dr William Reid, the director of the MA.

More land was converted to agriculture since 1945 than in the 18th and 19th Centuries combined. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilisers – first made in 1913 – ever used on the planet were deployed after 1985.

The MA authors say the pressure for resources has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in diversity of life on Earth, with some 10-30% of the mammal, bird and amphibian species currently threatened with extinction.

They report 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 – fisheries and fresh water – are now well beyond levels that can sustain current, much less future, demands. The experts warn these problems will substantially diminish the benefits for future generations.

The assessment runs to 2,500 pages and is intended to inform global policy initiatives. It says changes in consumption patterns, better education, new technologies and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems could all help slow the damage being done to the planet.

Global value

“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,” the MA board of directors said in a statement.

“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.”

The MA has cost some $20m to put together. It was funded by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the World Bank and others.

“This report is essentially an audit of nature's economy, and the audit shows we've driven most of the accounts into the red,” commented Jonathan Lash, the president of the World resources Institute.

“If you drive the economy into the red, ultimately there are significant consequences for our capacity to achieve our dreams in terms of poverty reduction and prosperity.”

The report's details were released on Wednesday at meetings in London, Washington DC, Tokyo, Brasilia, Cairo, Beijing, Nairobi, and New Delhi. More detailed assessments of world regions will follow later in the year.

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