Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 4 April 2005

Plant Earth on the Brink

A new comprehensive report of the world’s environment, co-headed by a prominent Malaysian scientist, warns that the Earth is on the “tipping point” of irreversible and possibly catastrophic changes.  The plant can still be saved, but big policy changes are needed.


The environment used to be a high-priority issue, discussed seriously at global summits and national meetings.  

But recently it has been displaced by other seemingly more pressing problems, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan arising from September 11, the instability in the Middle East, and economic competition among countries catalysed by trade liberalization.

Last week, a new report overseen by a high-powered team of scientists and agencies put the environmental crisis back on the agenda.  Or at least onto media pages and TV news screens.

It warned that mankind had been destroying or damaging much of the world’s ecosystems, and the situation will get worse in the next few decades.  It put forward scenarios of six “tipping points”, in which the world stands at the brink of sudden and unalterable change---or what might popularly be said to be the “point of no return.”

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report, conducted by 1,300 experts from 95 countries, took four years to produce.  It was designed by UN agencies, international scientific organizations, and development agencies, with the secretrait at the UN Environment Programme. 

The MA’s work is overseen by a 45-member board of directors, co-chaired by Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist of The World Bank, and Dr. A. H. Zakri, director of the United Nations University’s Institute of  Advanced Studies.

Zakri, a Malaysian scientist, was formerly a professor and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Universiti Kebangsaan  Malaysia.  Watson was formerly Chairman of the renowned Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change.  

The Board said although environmental changes helped to improve the lives of billions, at the same time they weakened nature’s ability to deliver other key services such as purification of air and water, protection from disasters, and the provision of medicines.

Outstanding problems identified include the dire state of many of the world’s fish stocks; the intense vulnerability of the 2 billion people living in dry regions to the loss of ecosystem services, including water supply; and the growing threat to ecosystems from climate change and nutrient pollution.

“Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being. The pressures on ecosystems will increase globally in coming decades unless human attitudes and actions change.

The Report has four main findings.  Firstly, humans have changed ecosystems more in the last 50 years than ever before. This resulted in a loss in diversity of life on Earth, with some 10 to 30 percent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species currently threatened with extinction.

More land was converted to agriculture since 1945 than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined and more than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, first made in 1913, ever used has been used since 1985.

Secondly, ecosystem changes may have been done in pursuit of economic growth.  But the gains from growth came at the expense of increasing costs when other services (provided by the environment) were degraded.

Only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the last 50 years: increases in crop, livestock and aquaculture production, and increased carbon sequestration for global climate regulation. Two services – capture fisheries and fresh water – are now well beyond levels that can sustain current, much less future, demands. 

 Thirdly, the degradation of ecosystem services will worsen significantly worse during the first half of this century.   Ecosystem changes such as deforestation influence the abundance of human pathogens such as malaria and cholera, as well as the risk of emergence of new diseases.  Had malaria been eliminated 35 years ago, Africa’s gross domestic product would have increased by $100 billion.  

Fouthly, the degradation of ecosystems can be reversed if there are changes in policy and institutions.  But these changes will be large and are not currently under way.

The report advocates policy options to conserve ecosystem services that can affect other services positively.   Forest protection, for example, conserves wildlife but also supplies fresh water and reduces carbon emissions. 

The MA 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..

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Report is its description of the “tipping points”, which if reached could bring about catastrophic and unalterable change.  These have been summarized by the Independent (London) as follows. 

---   New Diseases:   As population densities increase and living space extends into once pristine forests, the chances of an epidemic of a new infectious agent grows. Global travel accentuates the threat, and the emergence of SARS and bird flu are prime examples of diseases moving from animals to humans.

---  Alien Species:   The introduction of an invasive species - whether animal, plant or microbe - can lead to a rapid change in ecosystems. Zebra mussels introduced into North America led to the extinction of native clams and the comb jellyfish caused havoc to 26 major fisheries species in the Black Sea.

---  Algal Blooms:  A build up of man-made nutrients in the environment has already led to the threshold being reached when algae blooms. This can deprive fish and other wildlife of oxygen as well as producing toxic substances that endanger drinking water.

 ---  Coral Reef Collapse:   Reefs that were dominated by corals have suddenly changed to being dominated by algae, which have taken advantage of the increases in nutrient levels running off from terrestrial sources. Many of Jamaica's coral reefs have now become algal dominated.

---   Fishing Stocks:  Overfishing has caused a collapse in stocks. A threshold is reached when there are too few adults to maintain a viable population. This occurred off the east coast of Newfoundland in 1992 when its stock of Atlantic cod vanished.

---  Climate Change:  In a warmer world, local vegetation or land cover can change, causing warming to become worse. The Sahel region of North Africa depends on rainfall for its vegetation. Small changes in rain can result in loss of vegetation, soil erosion and further decreases in rainfall.

“The over-riding 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,” said the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s board of directors.

“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 warning signs are there for all of us to see. The future now lies in our hands.”