As many as 60 percent of life-supporting ecosystems are being degraded, says a major new report released Wednesday.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment carried out by 1,300 scientists in 95 countries warns that this degradation could get significantly worse over the next 50 years.
The ecosystems most under threat are fresh water, fisheries, air and water regulation, and the regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests, the report says.
Degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystems examined means an increased likelihood of potentially abrupt changes that will seriously affect human wellbeing, the report says. These could include the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, the collapse of fisheries and shifts in regional climate.
The report could turn out to be more than another doomsday scenario. ”As the work of 1,300 scientists it carries a certain credibility,” Roger Higman, environmental coordinator of Friends of the Earth told IPS. ”There will be a lot of interest in what this report is saying.”
But the report does not go far enough in suggesting solutions, Higman said. ”It does not really pin down who amongst humanity is mostly responsible. It does not, for instance, identify the rich nations for having taken more than their fair share of the world’s natural resources.”
Nor does the report address the economic question of protecting natural resources while going for trade liberalisation, Higman said. ”Environmental management means that local and national governments need to be able to regulate access to resources in a way that these resources are protected.”
Trade liberalisation, he said, places a lot of countries, particularly small developing countries, under a lot of pressure to open up their markets. ”These countries are often not strong enough to resist the pressure of transnational corporations, which enables these corporations to pillage the resources of the countries.”
Given the seriousness of the crisis, he said, the report ”should have been more prescriptive.”
But the report does present the most comprehensive and detailed picture yet of the seriousness of the degradation of ecosystems. Following are some of its key findings:
– Two services – capture fisheries and fresh water – are now well beyond levels that can sustain current, much less future, demands.
– The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by almost a third since 1750, and 60 percent of that increase has happened since 1959;
– More land has been converted to cropland since 1945 than during the whole of the 18th and 19th centuries combined;
– One quarter of the world’s coral reefs and about 35 percent of the mangroves, in countries surveyed, were destroyed or badly degraded in the last decades of the 20th century;
– More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertiliser ever used has been used since 1985, causing water pollution problems around the world;
– Levels of poverty remain high and inequalities are growing – over one billion people survive on less than a dollar a day, 856 million are undernourished and between 1 and 2 billion are affected by water scarcity;
– The degradation of ecosystems is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty – 1.8 million people die annually due to inadequate hygiene, sanitation or water supply;
– The Millennium Development Goal to halve poverty and hunger between 1990 and 2015 will not be achieved and hunger and child malnutrition will remain problems even in 2050;
– Wealthy countries cannot insulate themselves from ecosystem degradation.
The Assessment says significant changes in policy could reduce many of the bad effects from rising pressures on ecosystems, although the changes required are large and not happening. It says that better governance, tax incentives, changes in consumption, new technology and more research could help humanity manage ecosystems better.
”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,” says the study..
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, the report says.
The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands can be met under some scenarios involving significant policy and institutional changes, the report says. However, these changes will be large and are not currently under way, it says.
The report reveals that the poorest 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.
But timely action can save the ecosystem and the poor, the report says.
”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 assessment board of directors said in an accompanying 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 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 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 wellbeing.
The four-year assessment was designed by a partnership of UN agencies, international scientific organisations, and development agencies, in consultation with the private sector and civil society groups. Sanjay Suri , IPS