Earth has suffered irreversible damage: study
Updated Thu. Mar. 31 2005 5:55 AM ET
CTV.ca News Staff
Humans are damaging the Earth at such an unprecedented rate that the strain on the planet may destroy about two-thirds of its ecosystem services, according to a landmark international study.
The consequences of humans' activities are severe and include: new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of "dead zones" along the coasts, the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report.
"At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning," said the 45-member board.
"Human activity is 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," it said.
The four-year, 2,500-page assessment was drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations in an effort to inform global policy initiatives.
Scientists warn that about 60 per cent of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth, such as fresh water, air and water regulation and natural hazards, are being destroyed.
The report warns that the consequences of this degradation of the environment will significantly worsen over the next 50 years.
"Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continue to be degraded," said the study.
The report says humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly in the past 50 years than any other period.
"This was done largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel," a statement said, adding that this resulted in an irreversible loss of life on Earth, with some 10 to 30 per cent of mammal, bird and amphibian species threatened with extinction currently.
The changes in the ecosystem are owing to humans' efforts to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel, the report says.
"More land was converted to agriculture since 1945 than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined," according to the report's authors.
"More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, first made in 1913, ever used on the planet has been used since 1985."
And the current state of affairs is likely to be an obstacle to meeting the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000, the report says.
"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 MA board of directors 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 warning signs are there for all of us to see. The future now lies in our hands."
In a message launching the reports, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said the environment can only be protected by understanding how it works.
"Only by valuing all our precious natural and human resources can we hope to build a sustainable future," Annan said.
Deforestation influences the abundance of human pathogens such as malaria and cholera
Scientists project there will be progress in eliminating hunger but at rates too slow to halve the number of the hungry by 2015.
It is the world's poorest people who suffer the most from changes to the ecosystem.
Only four ecosystem services have been improved in the past half-century. These include: increased crop, livestock and aquaculture production, and increased carbon sequestration for worldwide climate regulation.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment's work was prepared under the supervision of a 45-member board of directors, co-chaired by Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist of The World Bank, and Dr. A. Hamid Zakri, director of the United Nations University's Institute of Advanced Studies.