WRI: Value Earth's Ecosystems or They Will Disappear

WASHINGTON, DC, May 7, 2007 (ENS) - Climate change is not only altering weather patterns and causing sea levels to rise, it is also transforming ecosystem services that humans have always taken for granted, the World Resources Institute said today in a new report.


An English forest absorbs carbon dioxide that would otherwise become a climate warming greenhouse gas. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
Economists usually treat natural assets such as clean drinking water, absorption of carbon dioxide, or the decomposition of wastes as if they have no value. Instead, they focus on a narrow set of economic indicators, such as gross domestic product, GDP, disposable income, and purchasing power parity. Many of nature's services are not included in national accounts and forecasts.

"We must urgently expand the climate debate beyond reducing greenhouse gases to focus on how climate change is altering ecosystem services," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, WRI, this morning at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The occasion was the release of WRI's report, "Restoring Nature's Capital: An Action Agenda to Sustain Ecosystem Services."

"Lima in Peru, for example, is entirely dependent on water from glacial melt," Lash said. "The glaciers will be gone in 20 years. Their options range from energy intensive desalination to a pipeline to the Amazon River - also threatened by climate change. Such decisions have huge implications for people and ecosystems."

Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, introduced the organization's new report, "Restoring Nature's Capital." (Photo courtesy WRI)
The report presents the results of the earliest thinking about how to address the difficult realities and the enormous potential uncovered by The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Launched in June 2001 and involving more than 1,300 scientists from 95 countries, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a study of how humans have altered ecosystems, and how changes in ecosystem services affect human well-being - now and in the future.

"In the last half of the 20th century," the assessment found, "humans changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of history, primarily to meet growing needs for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the variety of life on Earth."

Of the 24 ecosystems assessed, only four have shown improvement over the past 50 years. Fifteen are in serious decline, while five hang in the balance.

"Restoring Nature's Capital" proposes an action agenda for business, governments, and civil society to reverse ecosystem degradation.

Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme Achim Steiner (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
In his first major address to a U.S. audience since becoming executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme last summer, Achim Steiner told this morning's gathering, "The Millennium Assessment put the plight of the planet's ecosystems firmly on the world's radar - 15 of the 24 ecosystem services are being degraded or used unsustainably."

"It also gave the world a glimpse into the economic costs accruing from over-extracting this nature-based or natural capital," he said.

Steiner also sees reasons to be optimistic, especially in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released Friday in Bangkok.

"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the costs of acting to decarbonize our economies will be far less some three percent of global GDP, and less if wider benefits are factored in than the costs of inaction," Steiner pointed out.

He says if the world can act on climate change, it can act on the equally important issue of ecosystems and the services they provide.

"We have enough knowledge, market mechanisms, and creative fiscal incentives to make a start. We now need the courage and intelligence to act," Steiner said.

The report's lead authors, WRI's Frances Irwin and Janet Ranganathan, have written a concise action agenda for ecosystem restoration.

  • Develop and use information about ecosystem services
  • Strengthen the rights of local people to use and manage ecosystem services
  • Manage ecosystem services across multiple levels - local, regional, national, and international - and timeframes
  • Improve accountability for decisions that affect ecosystem services
  • Align economic and financial incentives with ecosystem stewardship

    meeting participants

    The Indigenous Women's Biodiversity Network Meeting on Manukan Island, Malaysia in 2004 was an example of managing ecosystem services on an international level. (Photo courtesy Netherlands Center for Indigenous People)
    Ranganathan said, "The way forward requires rewiring the institutions of governance - making new connections to understand and find solutions to solve the complex interlinked challenges of ecosystem degradation."

    "One thing is abundantly clear," Ranganathan said, "business as usual is no longer an option.

    "The time has come to stop operating Planet Earth Ltd. solely for the purpose of making a few shareholders rich in the short term," she said, "and instead manage it as a family trust fund, set up for the benefit of today's and tomorrow's children."