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Earth's Health in Sharp Decline, Massive Study Finds

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 31, 2005
 
The report card has arrived from the largest ever scientific Earth
analysis, and many of the planet's ecosystems are simply not making
the grade.

The UN-backed Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report found that nearly two-thirds of Earth's life-supporting ecosystems, including clean water, pure air, and stable climate, are being degraded by unsustainable use.

Humans have caused much of this damage during the past half century. Soaring demand for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel have led to dramatic environmental changes, from deforestation to chemical pollution, the report says.

The already grim situation may worsen dramatically during the first half of the 21st century, the report's authors warn.

Over 1,300 governmental and private-sector contributors from 95 countries collaborated to create the landmark study. For four years they examined the planet's many habitats and species and the systems that bind them together.

The United Nations Environment Programme compiled the report and released the results yesterday in Beijing, China.

"Only by understanding the environment and how it works, can we make the necessary decisions to protect it," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a press statement accompanying the report's release. "Only by valuing all our precious natural and human resources, can we hope to build a sustainable future."

Socioeconomic Impact

The report paints a rather bleak picture for biodiversity throughout much of the natural world. Perhaps 10 to 30 percent of Earth's mammal, bird, and amphibian species are facing extinction.

The massive ecological survey was begun in response to Annan's Millennium Development Goals, a UN initiative that aims to dramatically reduce socio-economic problems, such as hunger and extreme poverty, by 2015.

"The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment gives us, in some ways for the first time, an insight into the economic importance of ecosystem services and some new and additional arguments for respecting and conserving the Earth's life-support systems," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme.

Current human usage patterns of Earth's environment have increased the global food supply, albeit too slowly to accomplish the UN goal of halving world hunger by 2015.

The negative effects of ecosystem strain also include collapsing fisheries, coastal "dead zones" near sediment-heavy river mouths, shifting water quality, and unpredictable regional climate, the report said.

Deforestation and other radical ecosystem alterations also promote diseases, such as malaria and cholera, as well as new strains of existing contagions.

Changes to water systems may increase the frequency and severity of destructive floods. Over a hundred thousand people were killed in the 1990s by floods, which also caused destruction to the tune of 243 billion dollars (U.S.), according to the report.

The regions facing the greatest environmental degradation are also among the world's poorest: sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and parts of Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia

Call for Radical Change

The report urges drastic policy changes to the ways in which natural resources are used.

From an economic perspective, the study suggests that many intact ecosystems should be regarded as more valuable than those altered for commercial use.

For example, citing wetland wildlife habitat, water pollution filtration, water storage, and recreational value, the report appraised intact Thai mangroves at a thousand U.S. dollars per acre (0.4 hectare). The same mangroves were valued at only U.S. $200 an acre after they had been cleared for fish and shellfish farming.

"The overriding 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," the report's 45-person board of directors said in a statement.

"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 statement continued. "The warning signs are there for all of us to see. The future now lies in our hands."

The board of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report was co-chaired by Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank, and A. Hamid Zakri, director of the United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Studies.

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