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Earth’s services in peril, report concludes

31.03.2005


The innumerable benefits provided by the Earth – everything from fresh water and clean air to productive soils, wild fisheries, and genetic resources - have been depleted at an unprecedented rate in the past 50 years, and in many cases humans are living on borrowed time unless they wake up, a group of scientific experts said today.



In presentations made jointly in 12 cities around the world, authors of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment delivered a major report on the grim status of the services provided by the planet’s ecosystems and the consequences to human well-being. The report also outlined possible responses that might be adopted to improve ecosystem management and contribute to human well-being.

"This is a sobering report card - but one with useful and hopeful options" said Jane Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University, and one of the study’s 1,360 authors from 95 countries. "Everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a decent, healthy and secure life," Lubchenco said.


"Humans have made unprecedented changes to ecosystems in recent decades to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, fiber and energy," she said. "Although these changes have helped to improve the lives of billions, they have also weakened nature’s ability to deliver other key services such as purification of air and water, protection from disasters and the provision of medicines."

Only four of the ecosystem services examined by the assessment were found to be increasing in their ability to benefit human populations, while 15 were in decline. Five more were found to be in a stable state overall.

"Much of the increase in food and timber production we’ve seen over the last few decades has come at the expense of other key services needed for future food and timber production, as well as other services," Lubchenco said.

Steps can be taken to help address and even reverse some of these crises, the researchers said, but the first and most important step is to understand the gravity of the situation. That is what the new assessment, which was called for in 2000 by the United Nations and supported by a diverse group of nations, agencies and industry, is designed to do.

Five years in the making, the mammoth study was the work of thousands of leading experts around the world. It explored the nature of the Earth’s ecosystems, the ways in which they function, the services they provide to humans, whether or not those services are being used sustainably, and what the future may hold. Separate reports addressed specific groups, such as the business community.

The report concludes that human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.

Among the findings of the report:

  • Humans depend for their existence far more than they realize on the intricate web of physical and biological systems provided by the Earth – the food and fresh water we need to survive, wood for shelter, and fresh air to breathe.
  • More changes have been made to the Earth’s ecosystems in recent decades than at any other time in human history – since 1945, more forests, savannah and grasslands have been converted to agriculture than in the previous two centuries.
  • Some of the most critical ecosystem functions are poorly understood or appreciated – the contribution of forests to air quality, wetlands for water filtration and flood control, the health of soils as the basis for our food supply.
  • The demand for water by people and industry has doubled since 1960. Underground aquifers are drying up, and sometimes the flow of once-mighty rivers such as the Nile in Africa or Colorado in North America is drained so severely that the river never reaches the sea.
  • The speed of global warming is greater than anything seen for at least 10,000 years, making it more difficult for many species to survive and adapt to new conditions.
  • About 12 percent of birds, 25 percent of mammals and at least 32 percent of amphibians are threatened with extinction over the next century.
  • Increases in food production have kept pace with population growth, but often at the expense of other ecosystem services that form the foundation for more food – depleted soils, over-fished oceans, polluted waters.
  • Abrupt changes and "tipping points" may soon be reached in many ecosystems, resulting in catastrophic climatic or biological changes over a very short time with little warning.
  • Poverty and degradation of nature may turn into a downward spiral, in which poor communities have fewer options to conserve natural resources, the abuse of land increases and even greater poverty results.
  • The impact of ecosystem disruption often falls first and most heavily on the poor, while wealthier economies can afford some engineered solutions that at least temporarily forestall the crisis.

"We hear a lot about various environmental problems and ecological issues, but this report integrates all of the changes underway and shows explicitly how they relate to human well-being," Lubchenco said. The severity of the problems, Lubchenco said, does not mean the situation is hopeless.

"Social change is not always steady and gradual," she said. "Once people better understand the situation and what we have to do, I think it’s possible we could see dramatic actions from many groups, including business, the general public, religious groups, and the scientific and political communities. The scientific community is offering an evaluation and suggested options. Now is a real opportunity for leadership."

The study said that three key changes must take place before major change is realistic.

People must first understand that the services provided by nature are not free and limitless. Local communities must have real influence in how conservation decisions are made, and end up with a fair share of the benefits. And the whole process must become more broad-based, not confined to a single government agency or one small part of a corporate bureaucracy.

Better understanding the real economic value of natural systems, and the bottom-line cost of losing them, will help, the study suggested.

Businesses must also learn that their long-term corporate survival may depend on protection of ecosystems, the report concluded, and they should explore changing consumer preferences and new business opportunities created by the demands of a changing world.

Jane Lubchenco | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.oregonstate.edu

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