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State of the World
by Steve Conner


    The State of the World? It is on the Brink of Disaster
An Authoritative Study of the Biological Relationships Vital to Maintaining
Life has Found Disturbing Evidence of Man-made Degradation

by Steve Connor

Planet Earth stands on the cusp of disaster and people should no longer take
it for granted that their children and grandchildren will survive in the
environmentally degraded world of the 21st century. This is not the
doom-laden talk of green activists but the considered opinion of 1,300
leading scientists from 95 countries who will today publish a detailed
assessment of the state of the world at the start of the new millennium.



The assessment hasn't gone far enough in specifying the radical solutions
needed. At the end of the day, if we are to respect the limits imposed by
nature, and ensure the well-being of all humanity, we must manage the global
economy to produce a fairer distribution of the earth's resources.

Roger Higman, of Friends of the Earth


300. (AP Photo/xxxxx)

The report does not make jolly reading. The academics found that two-thirds
of the delicately-balanced ecosystems they studied have suffered badly at
the hands of man over the past 50 years.

The dryland regions of the world, which account for 41 per cent of the
earth's land surface, have been particularly badly damaged and yet this is
where the human population has grown most rapidly during the 1990s.

Slow degradation is one thing but sudden and irreversible decline is
another. The report identifies half a dozen potential "tipping points" that
could abruptly change things for the worse, with little hope of recovery on
a human timescale.

Even if slow and inexorable degradation does not lead to total environmental
collapse, the poorest people of the world are still going to suffer the
most, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which drew on 22
national science academies from around the world.

Walt Reid, the leader of the report's core authors, warned that unless the
international community took decisive action the future looked bleak for the
next generation. "The bottom line of this assessment is that we are spending
earth's natural capital, putting such strain on the natural functions of
earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future
generations can no longer be taken for granted," Dr Reid said.

"At the same time, the assessment shows that the future really is in our
hands. We can reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the
next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are
substantial and not currently under way," he said.

The assessment was carried out over the past three years and has been
likened to the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - set
up to investigate global warming - for its expertise in the many specialisms
that make up the broad church of environmental science.

In summary, the scientists concluded that the planet had been substantially
"re-engineered" in the latter half of the 20th century because of the
pressure placed on the earth's natural resources by the growing demands of a
larger human population.

"Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and
extensively than at any time in human history, largely to meet rapidly
growing demands for food, fresh water, timber and fibre," the reports says.

The full costs of this are only now becoming apparent. Some 15 of the 24
ecosystems vital for life on earth have been seriously degraded or used
unsustainably - an ecosystem being defined as a dynamic complex of plants,
animals and micro-organisms that form a functional unit with the non-living
environment in which the coexist.

The scale of the changes seen in the past few decades has been
unprecedented. Nearly one-third of the land surface is now cultivated, with
more land being converted into cropland since 1945 than in the whole of the
18th and 19th centuries combined.

The amount of water withdrawn from rivers and lakes for industry and
agriculture has doubled since 1960 and there is now between three and six
times as much water held in man-made reservoirs as there is flowing
naturally in rivers.

Meanwhile, the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that has been released into
the environment as a result of using farm fertilizers has doubled in the
same period . More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer ever
used on the planet has been used since 1985.

This sudden and unprecedented release of free nitrogen and phosphorus -
important mineral nutrients for plant growth - has triggered massive blooms
of algae in the freshwater and marine environments. This is identified as a
potential "tipping point" that can suddenly destroy entire ecosystems. "The
Millennium Assessment finds that excessive nutrient loading is one of the
major problems today and will grow significantly worse in the coming decades
unless action is taken," Dr Reid said.

"Surprisingly, though, despite a major body of monitoring information and
scientific research supporting this finding, the issue of nutrient loading
barely appears in policy discussions at global levels and only a few
countries place major emphasis on the problem.

"This issue is perhaps the area where we find the biggest 'disconnect'
between a major problem related to ecosystem services and the lack of policy
action in response," he said.

Abrupt changes are one of the most difficult things to predict yet their
impact can be devastating. But is environmental collapse inevitable?

"Clearly, the dual trends of continuing degradation of most ecosystem
services and continuing growth in demand for these same services cannot
continue," Dr Reid said.

"But the assessment shows that over the next 50 years, the risk is not of
some global environmental collapse, but rather a risk of many local and
regional collapses in particular ecosystem services. We already see those
collapses occurring - fisheries stocks collapsing, dead zones in the sea,
land degradation undermining crop production, species extinctions," he said.

Between 1960 and 2000, the world population doubled from three billion to
six billion. At the same time, the global economy increased more than
six-fold and the production of food and the supply of drinking water more
than doubled, with the consumption of timber products increasing by more
than half.

Meanwhile, human activity has directly affected the diversity of wild
animals and plants. There have been about 100 documented extinctions over
the past century but scientists believe that the rate at which animals and
plants are dying off is about 1,000 times higher than natural, background
levels.

"Humans are fundamentally and to a significant extent irreversibly changing
the diversity of life on earth and most of these changes represent a loss of
biodiversity," the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment says.

The distribution of species across the world is becoming more homogenous as
some unique animals and plants die out and other, alien species are
introduced into areas in which they would not normally live, often with
devastating impact.

For example, the Baltic Sea contains 100 non-native species, of which about
one-third come from the Great Lakes of North America. Meanwhile, a similar
proportion of the 170 non-native species found in the Great Lakes come from
the Baltic.

"In other words, the species in any one region of the world are becoming
more similar to other regions.... Some 10 to 30 per cent of mammals, birds
and amphibians are currently threatened with extinction. Genetic diversity
has declined globally, particularly among cultivated species," the report
says.

Agricultural intensification, which brought about the green revolution that
helped to feed the world in the latter part of the 20th century, has
increased the tendency towards the loss of genetic diversity. "Currently 80
per cent of wheat area in developing countries and three-quarters of all
rice planted in Asia is now planted to modern varieties," the report says.
Dr Reid said that the authors of the assessment were most worried about the
state of the earth's drylands - an area covering 41 per cent of the land
surface and home to a total of two billion people, many of them the poorest
in the world.

Drylands are areas where crop production or pasture for livestock is
severely limited by rainfall. Some 90 per cent of the world's dryland
regions occur in developing countries where the availability of fresh water
is a growing problem.

One-third of the world's people live in dryland regions that have access to
only 8 per cent of the world's renewable supply of water, the scientists
found. "We were particularly alarmed by the evidence of strong linkages
between the degradation of ecosystem services in drylands and poverty in
those regions," Dr Reid said.

"Moreover, while historically, population growth has been highest in either
urban areas or the most productive ecosystems such as cultivated lands, this
pattern changed in the 1990s and the highest percentage rate of growth is
now in drylands - ecosystems with the lowest potential to support that
growth.

"These problems of ecosystem degradation and the harm it causes for human
well-being clearly help set the stage for the conflict that we see in many
dryland regions including parts of Africa and central Asia," he said.

Poor people living in dryland regions are at the greatest risk of
environmental collapse. Many of them already live unsustainably - between 10
and 20 per cent of the soil in the drylands are eroded or degraded.

"Development prospects in dryland regions of developing countries are
especially dependent on actions to slow and reverse the degradation of
ecosystems," the Millennium Assessment says.

So what can be done in a century when the human population is expected to
increase by a further 50 per cent?

The board of directors of the Millennium Assessment said in a statement:
"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.

"Achieving this, however, will require radical changes in the way nature is
treated at every level of decision-making and new ways of co-operation
between government, business and civil society. The warning signs are there
for all of us to see. The future now lies in our hands," it said.

Asked what we should do now and what we should plan to do over the next 50
years, Dr Reid replied that there must be a fundamental reappraisal of how
we view the world's natural resources. "The heart of the problem is this:
protection of nature's services is unlikely to be a priority so long as they
are perceived to be free and limitless by those using them," Dr Reid said.

"We simply must establish policies that require natural costs to be taken
into account for all economic decisions," he added.

"There is a tremendous amount that can be done in the short term to reduce
degradation - for example, the causes of some of the most significant
problems such as fisheries collapse, climate change, and excessive nutrient
loading are clear - many countries have policies in place that encourage
excessive harvest, use of fossil fuels, or excessive fertilization of crops.

"But as important as these short-term fixes are, over the long term humans
must both enhance the production of many services and decrease our
consumption of others. That will require significant investments in new
technologies and significant changes in behavior," he explained.

Many environmentalists would agree, and they would like politicians to go
much further.

"The Millennium Assessment cuts to the heart of one of the greatest
challenges facing humanity," Roger Higman, of Friends of the Earth, said.

"That is, we cannot maintain high standards of living, let alone relieve
poverty, if we don't look after the earth's life-support systems," Mr Higman
said.

"Yet the assessment hasn't gone far enough in specifying the radical
solutions needed. At the end of the day, if we are to respect the limits
imposed by nature, and ensure the well-being of all humanity, we must manage
the global economy to produce a fairer distribution of the earth's
resources," he added.

THE TIPPING POINTS TO CATASTROPHE

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 are a danger
to 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 can, and has, led to 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.

2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd

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