A landmark study released today 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, including experts from MNP. 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 cropland in the 30 years after 1950 than in the 150 years between 1700 and 1850. 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.