The emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of coastal “dead zones,” the collapse of fisheries and shifts in regional climate are just some of the potential consequences of humankind’s degradation of the planet’s ecosystems, according to a new United Nations-backed report launched today.
Humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the last 50 years than in any other period; some 60 per cent of ecosystem elements supporting life on Earth, such as fresh water, clean air or a relatively stable climate, are being degraded or used unsustainably; and the situation could become significantly worse during the first half of this century, according to the study.
“Only by valuing all our precious natural and human resources can we hope to build a sustainable future,” Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a message launching the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report compiled by 1,300 scientists in 95 countries. “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an unprecedented contribution to our global mission for development, sustainability and peace.”
The four-year assessment was designed by a partnership of UN agencies, international scientific organizations and development agencies, with private sector and civil society input, in response to Mr. Annan’s call for global support of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which seek to slash a host of socio-economic ills such as extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.
“The overriding 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, “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.”
Although evidence remains incomplete, the report finds enough to warn that ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystem services examined – including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water regulation, and regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests – increases the likelihood of potentially abrupt changes that will seriously affect human well-being.
Its findings include:
- More land has been 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 have been used since 1985, resulting in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in diversity, with some 10 to 30 per cent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species currently threatened with extinction.
- Ecosystem degradation is a barrier to achieving the MDGs. In all the four plausible futures explored, scientists project progress in eliminating hunger, but at far slower rates than needed to halve the scourge by 2015. 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 per cent of the disease burden in Africa and had it been eliminated 35 years ago, the continent’s gross domestic product would have increased by $100 billion.
- The world’s poorest people suffer most from ecosystem changes. The regions facing significant problems of degradation – sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, some regions in Latin America, and parts of South and Southeast Asia – also face the greatest challenges in achieving the MDGs, such as halving extreme poverty by 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa the number of poor is forecast to rise to 404 million in a decade from 315 million in 1999.
The report was launched simultaneously at several UN headquarters around the world. “The challenge of ensuring the future of our environment is pressing and concerns us all, whether we work in education, science, culture or communication,” UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said in a message in Paris.
“The work of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment makes clear how ecosystems and human health are intertwined and further highlights how important it is that decisions related to economic development also protect the environment, in order to ultimately safeguard human health,” said Kerstin Leitner, Assistant Director-General for Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments of the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).
“The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment gives us, in some ways for the first time, an insight into the economic importance of ecosystem services and some new and additional arguments for respecting and conserving the Earth’s life support systems,” declared Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme (UNEP).