Nature in peril

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

A damaged reef in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast. -

A damaged reef in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast. -

THE warning is dire: The ecosystem is severely threatened and the aggressor is man. This dire warning comes from the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report, the first comprehensive evaluation of the ecosystem and its impact on human well-being worldwide.

The 2,500-page Millennium Assessment Report (MA), drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 countries over four years, and put together at a cost of $20 million, warns that humans are running down their natural capital at a rapid rate. The way society has been obtaining its resources has, in a dramatically short period of time, irreversibly damaged natural processes that support life, compromising the efforts worldwide to address hunger, poverty and health care. The report warns that the deterioration is likely to continue for the next 50 years and provides a set of plausible solutions.

The report was designed by U.N. agencies, in partnership with international scientific organisations and development agencies, with guidance from the private sector and civil society groups, and was funded by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the World Bank and others. The MA argues that the loss of natural services has become a significant barrier for all national governments to meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

According to Jonathan Lash, president, World Resources Institute, the MA is an audit of natures economy, which shows we have driven almost all accounts into the red. This, he argues, will have significant consequences for our capacity to achieve our dreams of poverty reduction and prosperity.

Says Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a key participant in the work on the report: The MA makes the case that ecosystems and the services they provide are socially, financially and culturally significant and that to degrade and damage them is tantamount to economic suicide There are many reasons to value ecosystems. The habitats, wildlife and landscapes are sources of beauty, focus of spirituality and culturally significant for people, communities and countries. They are also, and this is especially true for the poor, the basis of livelihoods from forestry and fishing to farming and tourism. For too long their economic value has been ignored. Ecosystem services have been treated as free and their exploitation limitless.

Praising the methodology of the comprehensive assessment, he says: It is a departure from the traditional methods of counting individual species. The MA defines ecosystems in x terms of the services, or benefits, that people get from them timber for building; clean air to breathe; fish for food; fibres to make clothes; and so on.

The study finds that the requirements of a burgeoning world population after the Second World War led to an unsustainable rush for natural resources. Though humanity made considerable gains x economies and food production have continued to grow x they also put at risk the future of global prosperity.

Says Dr. William Reid, Director, MA: When we look at the drivers of change affecting ecosystems habitat change, climate change, invasive species, over-exploitation of resources, and pollution, such as nitrogen and phosphorus we see that, across the board, they are either staying steady or increasing in severity. For instance, more land has been brought under the plough since 1945 than the total area cultivated in the 18th and 19th centuries. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers x first made in 1913 x ever used on the planet were deployed after 1985.

The report says the pressure on resources has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss of diversity of life, with 10-30 per cent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species facing extinction.

The report divides the ecosystem services into 24 items with four categories and finds that 15 are being degraded. It argues that only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the last 50 years: crop, livestock and aquaculture production, and carbon sequestration for global climate regulation (new forests planted in the northern hemisphere). Two services x fisheries and fresh water x are strained so much that they can barely sustain current, much less future, demands.

Says Sir John Lawton, former chief executive of the United Kingdoms Natural Environment Research Council: The MA is a very powerful consensus about the unsustainable trajectory that most of the worlds ecosystems are now on. There will undoubtedly be gainsayers, but I put them in the same box as the flat-earthers and the people who believe smoking does not cause cancer.

According to Klaus Toepfer, the MA, for the first time, gives insights into the economic importance of ecosystem services and presents new arguments for respecting and conserving the earths life-support systems. He says: I am not one of those who believe everything in this world should be boiled down to dollars and cents. But these estimated values are a good start and are a useful and additional reason to care for and respect natural capital alongside financial and human capital.

The MA claims that intact and healthy ecosystems are often worth more than altered, damaged and degraded ones. For instance, wetlands are important habitats for fish, birds and plants. They are also natural water pollution filters and water storage facilities, besides having high recreational value. The report claims that an intact wetland, for instance in Canada, is worth $6,000 a hectare whereas the same area cleared for intensive agriculture is worth only $2,000. The same argument is made for intact mangroves in Thailand versus mangroves cleared for shrimp farming x $1,000 a hectare versus about $200 a hectare. The MA estimates the recreational value of ecosystem services by citing the case of Marine Management Areas in Hawaii, where the recreational value ranges from $30,000 to $35 million. The 3,000-hectare Muthurajawela marsh in Sri Lanka, a coastal peat bog, is valued at $5 million a year for the flood control services it provides.

The MA also looks at the costs of damaging and degrading ecosystems. For example, it cites the collapse in the early 1990s of the Newfoundland cod fishery because of over-fishing. This put tens of thousands of people out of work and cost $2 billion in income support and retraining. The eutrophication of freshwater in England and Wales as a result of overuse of fertilizers and other sources such as waste water caused damage amounting to some $160 million a year in the 1990s. The burning of 10 million hectares of Indonesias forests in the late 1990s cost $9 billion in increased health care and lost production and tourism revenues. The net annual loss linked with invasive alien species in the Cape Floral region of South Africa is put at $93 million.

The MA argues that the cost of restoring ecosystems can be high; it is cheaper to conserve them than pollute and clean up afterwards. It cites the example of the State of Louisiana in the United States, which has put in place a $14-billion wetland restoration plan to protect 10,000 sq km of marsh, swamp and barrier islands to reduce storm surges generated by hurricanes.

The MA points out that human security is also at risk from ecosystem declines. It argues that the severity and frequency of floods and fires have been aggravated by damage to the earths natural capital. For example, between 1990 and 1999, more than 1,00,000 people were killed by floods and the damage amounted to $243 billion. This is partly blamed on the canalisation of rivers and other water bodies.

THE MA is not all doom and gloom. It provides models of future scenarios with the central idea that humans can ease the strain put on nature even as they continue to use them to raise living standards. But this, according to the MA, requires changes in consumption patterns, better education, new technologies and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems.

Some of the solutions the MA offers go back to old initiatives such as the abolition of production subsidies, which throw out of balance the world trade in agriculture, which is blamed for overloading land with fertilizers and pesticides as farmers chase ever higher yields.

Newer solutions centre around putting a value on externalities, which are currently free. For instance, airlines do not pay for the carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere, and the price of food does not reflect the cost of cleaning waterways polluted by the run-off of agrochemicals from farmland.

In future, these areas could be constrained by markets that trade permits as in Europes newly established carbon emissions market. Technologys role, the MA argues, will be keenly felt in the field of renewable energies. The MA stresses that the pace of change needs to quicken and this needs significant changes in policies, institutions and practices that are not currently under way. Says Angela Cropper, co-chair of the MA assessment panel: The range of current responses are not commensurate with the nature, the extent or the urgency of the situation that is at hand.

The MAs models of future scenarios are drawn with the presumption that with interventions that are strategic, targeted, and more fundamental in nature, desired outcomes can be realised and there can be positive results for the ecosystems, their services and human well-being.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 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.

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