UN Report: Earth ecosystem in peril

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Thursday, March 31, 2005 A report Tuesday from a United Nations-backed project, consulting more than 1,300 scientists from 95 countries, and written over the last four years, warns that 60 percent of the basics of life on Earth — water, food, timber, clean air — are currently being used in ways which degrade them. Furthermore, fisheries and fresh water use-patterns are unsustainable, and getting worse.

"The harmful consequences of this degradation could grow significantly worse in the next 50 years," according to a press release from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a massive four-year study begun in 2001.

"We've had many reports on environmental degradation, but for the first time we're now able to draw connections between ecosystem services and human well-being," Cristian Samper, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington and a chief architect of the study, told the Christian Science Monitor.

The project's Synthesis Report, first in a series of eleven documents and published yesterday, explains the objective: "to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and to establish the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and their contributions to human well-being."

It then goes on to report on four main findings:

  • Changes over the last 50 years to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel, have effected substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.
  • Net gains in human well-being and economic development are offset by growing costs, in the form ecosystem degradation, the possibility of abrupt and unpredictable ecosystem changes, and worsened poverty for some groups. Unless addressed, these problems will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems.
  • Ecosystem degradation could grow significantly worse over the next 50 years, presenting a barrier to meeting UN Millennium Development Goals.
  • The challenge of reversing the degradation while meeting increasing ecological demands can be partially met under some scenarios, but only with significant changes in policies, institutions and practices — changes that are not currently under way.

Walter Reid, the study's director, speaking at yesterday's London launch of the report said it shows that over the last 50 years "humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable time in human history."

"This has resulted in substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth," he said.

It is unclear what this will mean to future generations or the possible emergence of new diseases, absence of fresh water and the continuing decline of fisheries and completely unpredictable weather.

With half of the urban populations of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean suffering from several diseases associated with these problems, the death toll is reaching 1.7 million people a year. Entire species of mammals, birds and amphibians are disappearing from the planet at nearly 1,000 times the natural rate, according to the study. Oxygen-depleted coastal waters and rivers result from overuse of nitrogen fertilizer - an effect known as "nutrient loading" which leads to continuing biodiversity loss.

With the United States' non-participation in the Kyoto Treaty, former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth, president of this U.N. Foundation, says "U.S. leadership is critical in providing much-needed expertise, technological capabilities and ingenuity to restore ecosystems.

"We can take steps at home to reduce our nation's adverse impact on the global environment."

"At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning," said the 45-member board.

Sources

Sources providing unjustified claims about the report

See also