Millenium Ecosystem Assessment  [Printer-friendly version]
March 30, 2005


Will Put Global Development Goals At Risk

London, UK -- A landmark study released today [6 Mbyte PDF download]
reveals that approximately 60 percent of the ecosystem services that
support life on Earth -- such as fresh water, capture fisheries, air
and water regulation, and the regulation of regional climate, natural
hazards and pests -- are being degraded or used unsustainably.
Scientists warn that the harmful consequences of this degradation
could grow significantly worse in the next 50 years.

"Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger
eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely
to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity
relies continue to be degraded," said the study, Millennium Ecosystem
Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report, conducted by 1,300 experts from 95
countries. It specifically states that the ongoing degradation of
ecosystem services is a road block to the Millennium Development Goals
agreed to by the world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.

Although evidence remains incomplete, there is enough for the experts
to warn that the ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystem
services examined is increasing the likelihood of potentially abrupt
changes that will seriously affect human well-being. This includes the
emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation
of "dead zones" along the coasts, the collapse of fisheries, and
shifts in regional climate.

The MA Synthesis Report highlights four main findings:

Humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the
last 50 years than in any other period. This was done largely to meet
rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel.
More land was converted to agriculture since 1945 than in the 18th and
19th centuries combined. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen
fertilizers, first made in 1913, ever used on the planet has been used
since 1985. Experts say that this resulted in a substantial and
largely irreversible loss in diversity of life on Earth, with some 10
to 30 percent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species currently
threatened with extinction. Ecosystem changes that have contributed
substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development
have been achieved at growing costs in the form of degradation of
other services. Only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the
last 50 years: increases in crop, livestock and aquaculture
production, and increased carbon sequestration for global climate
regulation. Two services -- capture fisheries and fresh water -- are now
well beyond levels that can sustain current, much less future,
demands. Experts say that these problems will substantially diminish
the benefits for future generations. The degradation of ecosystem
services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this
century and is a barrier to achieving the UN Millennium Development
Goals. In all the four plausible futures explored by the scientists,
they project progress in eliminating hunger, but at far slower rates
than needed to halve number of people suffering from hunger by 2015.
Experts warn that changes in ecosystems such as deforestation
influence the abundance of human pathogens such as malaria and
cholera, as well as the risk of emergence of new diseases. Malaria,
for example, accounts for 11 percent of the disease burden in Africa
and had it been eliminated 35 years ago, the continent's gross
domestic product would have increased by $100 billion. The challenge
of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing
demands can be met under some scenarios involving significant policy
and institutional changes. However, these changes will be large and
are not currently under way. The report mentions options that exist to
conserve or enhance ecosystem services that reduce negative trade-offs
or that will positively impact other services. Protection of natural
forests, for example, not only conserves wildlife but also supplies
fresh water and reduces carbon emissions. "The over-riding conclusion
of this assessment is that it lies within the power of human societies
to ease the strains we are putting on the nature services of the
planet, while continuing to use them to bring better living standards
to all," said the MA board of directors in a statement, "Living beyond
Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being." "Achieving this,
however, will require radical changes in the way nature is treated at
every level of decision-making and new ways of cooperation between
government, business and civil society. The warning signs are there
for all of us to see. The future now lies in our hands."

The MA Synthesis Report also reveals that it is the world's poorest
people who suffer most from ecosystem changes. The regions facing
significant problems of ecosystem degradation -- sub-Saharan Africa,
Central Asia, some regions in Latin America, and parts of South and
Southeast Asia -- are also facing the greatest challenges in achieving
the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. In Sub-Saharan
Africa, for example, the number of poor people is forecast to rise
from 315 million in 1999 to 404 million by 2015.

"Only by understanding the environment and how it works, can we make
the necessary decisions to protect it. Only by valuing all our
precious natural and human resources can we hope to build a
sustainable future," said Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United
Nations in a message launching the MA reports. "The Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment is an unprecedented contribution to our global
mission for development, sustainability and peace."

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report is the
first in a series of seven synthesis and summary reports and four
technical volumes that assess the state of global ecosystems and their
impact on human well-being. This report is being released together
with a statement by the MA board of directors entitled "Living beyond
Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being."

The four-year assessment was designed by a partnership of UN agencies,
international scientific organizations, and development agencies, with
guidance from the private sector and civil society groups. Major
funding is provided by the Global Environment Facility, the United
Nations Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and The
World Bank. The MA Secretariat is coordinated by the United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP).

The MA is recognized by governments as a mechanism to meet part of the
assessment needs of four international environmental treaties -- the UN
Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands,
the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Convention on
Migratory Species. It is supported by 22 of the world's leading
scientific bodies, including The Royal Society of the U.K. and the
Third World Academy of Sciences.

The MA's work is overseen by a 45-member board of directors, co-
chaired by Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist of The World Bank, and
Dr. A. H. Zakri, director of the United Nations University's Institute
of Advanced Studies. The Assessment Panel, which oversees the
technical work of the MA, includes 13 of the world's leading social
and natural scientists. It is co-chaired by Angela Cropper of the
Cropper Foundation, and Dr. Harold Mooney of Stanford University. Dr.
Walter Reid is the director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.