Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Gloom and Doom

The recently released Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, conducted by 1300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, "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." And the situation is just going to get worse. Fifteen of the twenty-four examined ecosystems are being damaged. Two ecosystem services - fisheries and fresh water - are degraded below levels to sustain current demands. The report warns that:

· Because of human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel, more land has been claimed for agriculture in the last 60 years than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.

· An estimated 24% of the Earth's land surface is now cultivated.

· Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers has doubled in the last 40 years. Humans now use between 40% and 50% of all available freshwater running off the land.

· At least a quarter of all fish stocks are overharvested. In some areas, the catch is now less than a hundredth of that before industrial fishing.

· Since 1980, about 35% of mangroves have been lost, 20% of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed and another 20% badly degraded.

· Deforestation and other changes could increase the risks of malaria and cholera, and open the way for new and so far unknown disease to emerge.

The report is unique in that it defines ecosystems by the services or benefits that humans derive from them. Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute says, "This report is essentially an audit of nature's economy, and the audit shows we've driven most of the accounts into the red." Professor Sir John Lawton, former chief executive of the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, says, "There will undoubtedly be gainsayers, as there are with the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change); but I put them in the same box as the flat-Earthers and the people who believe smoking doesn't cause cancer."

This ecological degradation is likely to be a serious impediment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by world leaders in 2000. "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," the report states. The United Nations warned Monday that the Millenium Development Goals are already at risk - that poverty and urbanization, if left unchecked, could result in three billion of the world's inhabitants living in slums by the year 2050.

More information can be found at the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment website, the BBC, and the Guardian. The BBC has a special series, unrelated to the Millennium Ecosystems Accessment, called Planet under Pressure.

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