Global Ecological Assessment Calls for Humanity to Value Nature

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2006 (ENS) - The first major global assessment of the state of the world’s ecosystems offers an optimistic outlook for humanity amid stark warnings about how humans are abusing the ecological systems that enable life on Earth.

"Despite what looks like steady global decline, this is a story of hope," said Dr. Steve Carpenter, professor of limnology at the University of Wisconsin and a lead author of the research effort. "We have the tools we need. If we have the political will, we have the ability to implement them on a global scale."


Zoologist Dr. Steve Carpenter is professor of limnology at the University of Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy U. Wisconsin)
Commissioned by the United Nations and supported by 22 of the world’s leading scientific bodies, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is the product of more than four years of work by some 1,360 scientists and experts from 19 countries.

Summary reports of the findings were released last year - the final report includes the technical analysis that underpins those findings. In addition, it outlines four possible development paths the world could take and what those strategies would mean for humanity – and for the planet’s ecosystems - in 2050.

"There is an unbreakable link between human well-being and the health of the planet," said Dr. Walter Reid, director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and a professor with the Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

The massive study is filled with statistics that reveal how the planet’s ecosystems are struggling with the increasing demands of the world’s growing population.

It finds that more than 60 percent of the ecological systems that sustain life on Earth are being degraded or used unsustainably.


Crowned cranes in Tanzania use wetlands for nesting and forage in grasslands. (Photo by Mauricio Rosales courtesy FAO)
Some 10 to 30 percent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction.

More land was converted to agriculture since 1945 than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined and nearly a quarter of the Earth is now cultivated.

Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers for human use have doubled in the past 40 years and a third of the world’s population lives within ecosystems that contain less than 10 percent of the global freshwater supply.

The flow of nitrogen into the oceans has doubled since 1860 and at least 25 percent of marine fish stocks are overexploited.

The accelerated and sustained resource exploitation of the past 50 years has opened the door to new diseases, widespread water pollution, coastal dead zones and the likely collapse of some global fisheries.

The increased exploitation of ecosystems has also dramatically improved human health in the past century, but these gains are being achieved at a growing cost," and are not sustainable, Reid told reporters at a Washington, DC press conference on Thursday.

The report details how the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to support human life is seldom considered in economic policies.

This failure makes it extremely difficult for governments to enact sustainable growth strategies and ultimately threatens humanity’s future, Reid said.


Good management practices of livestock on one side of a hill in India is contrasted with overgrazing on the other side. (Photo by courtesy FAO)
"It is now time for us to measure the economic value of these services so that we can make better decisions about our future," Reid said. "As long as we consider ecosystem services free and limitless we will continue to use them in a way that does not make economic sense."

"Ecology and economics can work together and good economic policy can contribute to ecosystem health," added Dr. Prabhu Pingali, director of the Agricultural and Development Economics Division of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Bad economic policies - in particular agricultural subsidies - make it much harder for developing nations to achieve the dual goal of economic growth and environmental protection, Pingali said.

In addition to economic reform to reflect the costs of using ecosystem services, the report recommends four other broad policy shifts to move the world toward a path of more sustainable development: investments in environmentally sound technology; proactive and adaptive management of ecosystems; investment in public goods such as education and health; and action to reduce poverty and socioeconomic disparities.

The report predicts that life on Earth in 2050 will see a continued struggle with food, water and energy security as the world’s population grows to some nine billion people.

Demand for food crops is likely to increase some 70 to 85 percent and the demand for fish and fish products to collapse some regional marine fisheries. Hunger will continue to be most widespread in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and demand for water will rise some 30 to 85 percent worldwide.


Rainfall in Africa may be affected by such phenomena as changes in atmospheric pressure thousands of miles away. (Photo by Lee Klinger courtesy UCAR Digital Image Library)
The report warns that climate change may be the predominant driver of change in ecosystem services, as temperatures are projected to increase 2 to 6.4 degrees Celsisus and sea levels set to rise 50 to 70 centimeters by century’s end.

These changes are likely to bring more floods, droughts and severe weather events, according to the report, and impact agriculture worldwide.

Reid told reporters that the reaction of governments to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has been "very much a mixed picture."

There has been little reaction from the upper reaches of the U.S. government, Reid said, but several European countries are action on some of the recommendations and China is set to launch its own assessment using the framework provided by the international effort.

The full report can be found at