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Scientists collaborate to assess health of global environment


For the first time, a group of scientists has accomplished the daunting task of evaluating the status of all of the ecosystems on Earth, and the outlook is troubling.

Commissioned by the United Nations in 2001, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment program will issue its primary report on March 30 during press conferences in London, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, Beijing, New Delhi, Brasilia, Cairo, Nairobi and Rome. More than 2,000 scientists from 95 countries participated in the assessment and concluded that the environmental benefits that human societies depend on and take for granted--basic necessities such as food, clean air, potable water and fuel--are rapidly being degraded.

"[The assessment] examines the state of the global environment, but it’s more than that," said Harold A. Mooney, the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology at Stanford University and co-chair of the assessment’s science oversight panel. "It relates goods and services that ecosystems provide to human well-being. And surprisingly enough, that’s never been done before."

Mooney will participate in the March 30 press conference in Washington, D.C., which will focus on the implications for the United States and international business institutions.

Funded by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the World Bank and others, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment program also will evaluate future scenarios and give governments and institutions direction that Mooney described as a consensus of the scientific community and a synthesis of all available information.

Cause for concern

"If you look at all the indicators of human well-being, globally averaged we’re doing pretty well," Mooney said. "But in the last 50 years, we’ve changed the structure of the world’s ecosystems at a faster rate than any time in history."

The environmental degradation carried out to meet demand for food, fiber, timber, fresh water, fuel and other resources has begun to jeopardize more subtle services that nature has always provided free of charge, he said. Making matters worse, he added, the world’s poorest people stand to lose the most from environmental change, because they depend heavily on ecosystem services. In some places, such as sub-Saharan Africa, environmental change is the principal factor causing poverty, according to the assessment.


The assessment represents more than a catalog of environmental problems, Mooney noted. By evaluating the trade-offs that accompany decisions about ecosystem services, it will identify priorities on local, regional and global scales. In a particular area, for example, it can help policymakers decide whether the benefits of increasing food production will outweigh the effects on water quality and biodiversity by giving them the information they need to make tough decisions.

A substantial body of work addressing specific aspects of the assessment will follow this month’s release of the global synthesis report. A report on global biodiversity will be available in May; a report on desertification is due out in June; and reports related to wetlands, the role of the private sector and impacts on human health are scheduled for July. According to Mooney, these topics were chosen because the organizations that oversee major international treaties dealing with biological systems requested the information. The lack of adequate data to uphold such treaties is what helped convince the United Nations to initiate the program, he added.

Case studies

In September, the assessment team will release five technical reports totaling nearly 2,500 pages and focusing on the ties between ecosystems and human well-being. A set of 33 case studies, termed sub-global assessments, also will be released in late 2005 or early 2006. Each case study will focus on a particular area, Mooney said.

"This is really important because the global view gives averages, and global averages may be misleading," he said, noting that different ecosystems face different issues--overfishing in the Caribbean, for example, versus groundwater usage in Chile’s Atacama Desert or wood fuel harvesting in Zambia.

Overall, the diminishing capacity of services to meet human demands reflects a global problem, Mooney said. Fifteen of the 24 services the assessment considered have been degraded over the last 50 years--most notably fresh water, fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of climate, natural hazards and pests. Only four have been enhanced, and three of those pertain to food production.

Turning things around will require significant policy and institutional changes not currently under way, the global assessment will conclude.

Mark Shwartz | EurekAlert!
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