Christian Science Monitor
January 20, 2006

Forecast for Earth in 2050: It's not so gloomy

But people must begin to manage its ecosystems to put the planet on a
sustainable path, a new report says.

By Peter N. Spotts

When researchers scan the global horizon, overfishing, loss of species
habitat, nutrient run-off, climate change, and invasive species look
to be the biggest threats to the ability of land, oceans, and water to
support human well-being.

Yet "there is significant reason for hope. We have the tools we need"
to chart a course that safeguards the planet's ecological foundation,
says Stephen Carpenter, a zoologist at the University of Wisconsin,
Madison. "We don't have to accept the doom-and-gloom trends."

That's the general take-home message in an assessment of the state of
the globe's ecosystems and the impact Earth's ecological condition has
on humans.

Thursday, officials released a five-volume coda to the UN's Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment, an ambitious four-year attempt to explore the
relationship between the environment and human development. Summary
reports of the findings as they affected four international
environmental treaties were released last year. These new volumes
represent the detailed information that underpins the earlier reports.

In the process, it outlines four plausible ways the planet could
develop politically, economically, and socially by 2050, and the
effect they would have on people and the environment.

The pathways for political and economic development the authors use -
ranging from a relatively wide-open global system to a circle-the-
wagons, fragmented world -- emerged out of discussions with political
and business leaders, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations
worldwide. The authors then drew on the latest research to estimate
the impact of these paths. The assessment was conducted by 1,360
researchers from 95 countries.

By 2050, it estimates that the highly global approach -- with liberal
trade policies, and concerted efforts to reduce poverty, improve
education and public health, yet respond reactively to environmental
issues -- could yield the lowest population growth and the highest
economic growth. But the environmental scorecard would be mixed.

In a fragmented world that focuses largely on security and regional
markets and takes a reactive approach to ecological problems, economic
growth rates are the lowest and the population is the highest of the
four pathways.

Two other paths, which place a greater emphasis on technology and a
proactive approach to the environment, yield population growth rates
somewhere in the middle, and economic growth rates that may be slow at
first, but accelerate with time.

Even under the most environmentally beneficial paths, however,
ecological trouble spots are likely to remain -- central Africa, the
Middle East, and southern Asia.

In the end, Carpenter says, "there is no optimum approach, no one-
size-fits-all. It's all about trade-offs."

To put the planet on a sustainable path, he continues, the report
makes clear that people must view Earth's ecosystems as one
interlinked system, rather than as fragments. People must begin to
actively manage those ecosystems in ways that ensure that they will
receive the benefits those ecosystems provide -- from blunting the
surge from ocean storms and filtering water to feeding a hungry world.
Indeed, with efforts now under way to develop worldwide observing
systems to monitor the oceans, atmosphere, and land use, technology is
moving into place to support such broad management efforts.

Unfortunately, humans have "badly mismanaged" the ecosystems that
support them," says Walter Reid, a professor with Stanford
University's Institute for the Environment and director of the
assessment. "We need to manage for the full range of ecosystem
benefits, not just those that pass through markets."

For instance, the report holds that to safeguard the availability of
fresh water and encourage its more ecologically prudent use,
governments could consider replacing their subsidies with a more
market-based pricing system. To ensure that the poor aren't priced out
of the system, Carpenter says, one could adapt South Africa's
approach. It guarantees a minimum allotment per person. Once the meter
ticks beyond that amount, market prices kick in.

Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor