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Planet Earth, Year 2050

An important report on the world's ecosystems says there is time to avert the worst consequences of global warming, if we start now.
 
 
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The authors of the world's most overlooked environmental study held a press briefing last week in Washington to discuss what life on the planet will be like in 2050. Their upbeat conclusion: fundamental changes, in practice and policy, can protect us from the worst consequences of overpopulation and climate change.

Good news -- if anybody pays attention.

While it may not be a verifiable fact that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) is the world's most underappreciated eco-study, it's definitely the most unevenly appreciated one. When the huge report first emerged last spring after four years, $24 million and the efforts of more than 1,300 scientists in 95 countries, it made headlines elsewhere. In December it was awarded a Zayed Prize, something like an environmentalist Nobel. Here in the United States, though, the media barely registered its existence.

What a dirty shame. The U.N.-backed Millennium Assessment is the most thorough survey of global ecosystems ever undertaken. It's also the first report of its kind to link ecosystem health to human well-being, and in so doing strikes the rich, rich vein of human self-interest. Showing people what's in it for them is a great way to get something done.

At the press conference last Thursday, Walt Reid, who directed the study and now teaches at Stanford, restated the report's radical conclusions and issued a stern warning.

The report's basic premise is that healthy ecosystems provide humans with a range of "services" -- things like food, clean water, clean air, buffers from natural disasters and even spiritual renewal. To the extent that these "ecosystem services" are degraded, so is the quality of human life.

And without serious behavior modification, we're headed for a bad run, Reid said. "We've badly mismanaged our ecosystems," he said. "As long as we regard ecosystem services as free and limitless, we will continue to use them in a way that does not make sense."

Reid enumerated the main findings of the study he directed, which concluded that 60 percent of the planet's ecosystem services are being run down or used up faster than they can replenish themselves.

Poor people suffer most from such environmental degradation because their reliance on ecosystems is immediate. When a forest is wiped out, the people who relied on its animals and plants die. The Millennium Assessment amasses vast amounts of data demonstrating human suffering as a result of environmental destruction. And it predicts more pain to come as earth's swelling population pushes more ecosystems to their thresholds and toward extinctions and other "abrupt and irreversible" changes.

Last week's briefing focused on what governments can do to reverse these trends. Reid, along with Stephen Carpenter, zoology professor at University of Wisconsin, and Prabhu Pingali, an economist at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, presented four scenarios for the year 2050 that represent distinct paths into the future. They are all disturbing.

All start out assuming a couple of basic facts in the next 45 years: a significantly higher population (up from 6 billion to 8.1 to 9.6 billion) with attendant demands for more food and water, and fallout from climate change, like severe storms and dwindling water supplies.

  • The scenario dubbed "Global Orchestration" imagines a future in which global trade and economic liberalization have triumphed. Poverty has fallen and incomes have risen, leading to increased global consumption. Food and water needs are met, but at great cost: a lot of the so-called "regulating" ecosystem services -- erosion control, storm protection, water purification -- suffer. Species invasions and the release of environmental pathogens occur with greater frequency. Overall, though, the five basic indicators of human well-being (material well-being, health, security, social relations and freedom) improve.
  • In "Order from Strength," arguably the most dismal of the four scenarios (though the scientists themselves studiously refrain from value judgments), governments are grouped in security-obsessed regions, exercising rigid control of goods and information. The wealth gap grows between and within nations. Wealthy nations shift resource-intensive industry to poorer countries, exacerbating neglected environmental problems. International environmental treaties are ignored. One bright spot: Less global trade means fewer species invasions. But ecosystem services overall show a decline, and most human well-being indicators deteriorate too.
  • "Adapting Mosaic" might be called Hippie Heaven. Nature itself is the organizing political and economic principle. Systems are scaled to local watersheds and local governance, with great value placed on ecosystem management. Global spending on education triples. At some point, however, the emphasis on local governance leads to a worsening of problems with the "global commons." Fisheries are depleted and pollution worsens, but networks form to share best practices and cooperation saves the day. Ecosystem services across the board are ultimately enhanced, as is human well-being. What's not to love? Well, people in developing countries might go hungry while everyone else is busy creating regional utopias, and technological advancements and international agreements are weak.
  • "TechnoGarden" hinges on high global investment in green technology within an interconnected world, with a subsequent focus on economic development and the rise of a large global middle class. Ecosystem services are assigned value in the marketplace. For example, farmers are paid to produce ecosystem services besides food, so they might preserve wetlands or forests. Most ecosystem services improve, as does human well-being -- with the notable exception of social relations, as local customs are lost and more transactions occur over the Internet. Reid and his colleagues disagreed about whether highly urbanized democracies would make naive decisions about nature or come to prize nature for its intrinsic value and do a good job of safeguarding it.

The scientists were careful to say these are not whimsical predictions but carefully thought-out theoretical possibilities. And one of the dismaying facts to emerge is that even the best scenarios -- the last two, for my money -- have a downside.

But the presenters last week were resolutely optimistic. "It's a good news message," Carpenter said. "We can make a very positive difference in ecosystem services by 2050. The caveat is that fundamental changes would have to be undertaken."

The primary shift would be a change in attitude about ecosystem services. The value of much of nature's work is analogous to the "invisible work" of housewives, who may not function directly within the market but play a critical supporting role that keeps it running. "Governments must consider the full range of ecosystem services benefits, not just those that pass through the markets like fish and timber," Reid said.

Therefore, the value of mangrove forests in protecting Pacific islands (or cypress forests protecting Gulf Coast cities) from storm damage needs to be factored into economic decisions about whether to cut them down to make way for another shrimp farm or suburb. A wetlands' value to society as a water filtration facility needs to be weighed against the value of filling it and selling it to a developer for a one-time benefit to a single owner.

This is where subsidies come into play. Reid, Carpenter and Pingali emphasized the possibilities of using them in creative ways, as in the TechnoGarden scenario.

In economist-speak, Pingali summed up the conference on a hopeful note:

"I'd like to emphasize one fundamental lesson," he said. "Economic policy can contribute to sustainable ecosystem services over the long run."

Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Monterey, Calif.