A major presentation of info regarding the state of the world's ecosystems
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Published on Friday, January 20, 2006 by Inter Press Service
Environment: World Stands at a Crossroads
by Stephen Leahy
BROOKLIN, Canada - With 60 percent of the Earth's ecosystems in trouble right now, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, what will the future be like in 2050?
Demand for water will increase enormously between 30 and 85 percent, especially in Africa and Asia, while an increasing number of extreme events, such as hurricanes and famine, will affect many millions, warns a Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) report that looks at future world development scenarios.
Humankind is pushing up against natural thresholds and increasing the likelihood of abrupt changes -- especially when there are three billion more people in 2050.
"Two billion people currently living in drylands, including the western U.S., are especially vulnerable to climate change, which could produce intense, long-term droughts," said Stephen Carpenter, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin and one of the authors of the MA report.
Demand for food is expected to grow 70-85 percent by 2050, resulting in a 10 to 20 percent decline in forest and grasslands. Rising demand for fish will likely result in major and long-lasting collapse of regional marine fisheries. Hunger will remain a major problem, most widespread in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
South Asia could reach an "environmental breaking point as deforestation spreads, industrial agriculture grows, water use goes up and sewage discharge increases".
This future is not written in stone, Carpenter points out.
Conditions could get much worse or they might get better -- it all depends on the choices and the policies put into place now and the near future, the MA report concludes.
"We will have to make changes in policies for ecosystems to get better," he said at a press conference Thursday.
The MA is a 22-million-dollar, four-year global research initiative, commissioned by the United Nations, by 1,360 experts from 95 countries. The final four volumes published Thursday by Island Press reveal why and how to slow or reverse the degradation of the Earth's ecosystems, including a look at what the future may be like in 2050.
"This is a long overdue look at the state of Earth's ecosystems that sustain all life," said Thomas Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Centre, a U.S.-based NGO dedicated to improving the scientific and economic basis for environmental policy.
"The MA reports represent a roadmap for effective sustainable human development," said Lovejoy, a former ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
"It is highly relevant to U.S. policies in agriculture, trade and the environment," he added.
All societies, industries and businesses are dependent on the goods and services provided by nature. A natural landscape -- a wood lot or marsh, for example -- generates oxygen, cleans water, prevents erosion, builds soil, captures excess carbon dioxide, provides habitat for many other species and so on.
"There is an unbreakable link between human health and wellbeing and ecosystems," said Walter Reid, director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and a professor with the Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
Ecosystem goods and services freely available today will cease to exist or become more costly if the current decline continues. And in all future scenarios, ecosystems will be under tremendous pressure to provide significant increases in food, fibre and water, according the MA report.
Under perhaps the most optimistic scenario, where a global society takes strong steps to reduce poverty, invests in public goods such as infrastructure and education, and economic growth booms, some 4.9 billion people will still have difficulties getting water.
Much of this dark future can be avoided through policies and practices that value the goods and services that ecosystems provide, says Reid.
Destructive policies such as the agriculture subsidies by the U.S., European Union and other developed nations favour production over environmental conservation, says Prabhu Pingali, director of the Agricultural and Development Economics Division (ESA) at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.
"Those subsidies also reduce the ability of farmers in poor countries to grow food by keeping prices unrealistically low," Pingali said.
At the same time, developing countries need to change their policies that subsidise pesticides or electricity for water pumps because of their negative impact on ecosystems, he said. And farmers and others should be compensated for the environmental goods and services their lands provide society.
"By placing a monetary value on these services, we will be smarter about using them while creating alternative sources of income for people, from farmers in the United States to tribes in developing countries," he said.
"Politicians and other policymakers do not know the economic value of the goods and services provided by ecosystems," says Reid.
There have been few studies or measures of these and much more needs to be done, he acknowledges. "It's now time for us to measure the economic value of these services so we can make better decisions about our future."
But that doesn't prevent developing policies and taking actions now that reduce the pressure on species and preserve or increase biodiversity so that vital and fragile ecosystems will be more resilient, he says.
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