United Nations launches extensive study of earth's ecosystems

provided by UN Environment Programme

n June 5, 2001, World Environment Day, the United Nations, scientific groups, governments, foundations, and other international agencies, launched the most extensive study of the state of the world's ecosystems.

    Called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), it will examine the processes that support life on earth, like the world's grasslands, forests, rivers and lakes, farmlands, and oceans. The $21 million, four-year effort will involve 1,500 of the world's leading scientists.

    “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment will map the health of our planet, and so fill important gaps in the knowledge that we need to preserve it,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in launching the study. “All of us have to share the Earth's fragile ecosystems and precious resources, and each of us has to play a role in preserving them. If we are to go on living together on this earth, we must all be responsible for it.”

    The study was launched to provide decision-makers with authoritative scientific knowledge concerning the impact of changes to the world's ecosystems on human livelihoods and the environment. It will provide governments, the private sector, and local organizations with better information about steps that can be taken to restore the productivity of the world's ecosystems.

    Pilot studies conducted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) indicate that in many regions of the world, the capacity of ecosystems to meet human needs for food and clean water is being diminished. Also, threats to biodiversity and human health are growing, and vulnerability to environmental disasters, such as floods and landslides, is increasing.

    “All countries depend on ecosystem services to sustain their populations,” said Mohamed T. El-Ashry, chief executive officer of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a primary funder of the project. “When these services are damaged, it can have wide-ranging repercussions on the development prospects of affected nations, with the most serious impacts on the poor. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment will be a powerful tool in helping us mitigate and even reverse negative environmental trends and will strengthen our ability to foster truly sustainable development.”

    The MA was designed over the past three years by the UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme, the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, and other partners. During this period, WRI and its partners undertook a study the Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE) to demonstrate the feasibility of the MA [see sidebar below]. The results were published in a five-volume series over the past six months.

    “Ecosystems have a dual role of providing materials and services to meet human needs for food, water, employment, and health, as well as functioning to regulate environmental conditions and quality that make the Earth habitable for humans and other species,” said Angela Cropper, cochair of the Assessment Panel of the MA. “The MA seeks to increase scientific understanding of how their capacity to do so is being affected, and to help policy-makers assess likely long-term consequences for ecosystems and societies of the decisions they make.”

    The MA will include global, sub-global, and national assessments. Already, assessments are in the works for Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, Western China, and Norway. At the local level, studies are going on in India and Sweden. More sub-global assessments will be added in the next few months.

    “Assessing the state of a tightly interwoven planet requires unprecedented global cooperation,” said Timothy E. Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, one of the sponsors of the study. “It demands new partnerships that meld authoritative scientific expertise with the strengths of the private sector and the dedicated service of public officials.”

    The MA has been recognized by governments as a mechanism to meet the assessment needs of three international environmental treaties the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

    “The impact of the MA will stem from its scientific authority and its political legitimacy,” said Dr. Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. “It will involve the largest number of natural and social scientists ever assembled to look at the consequences of changes to the world's ecosystems.”

    The MA's work is overseen by a 40-member board, 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. The Assessment Panel, which will oversee the technical work of the MA, is comprised of 14 of the world's leading social and natural scientists. It is cochaired by Ms. Cropper and Dr. Harold Mooney of Stanford University.

    “We have the unprecedented ability to change the vital systems of our planet, for better or worse,” said Jonathan Lash, WRI president. “To change them for the better, we must recognize that the well-being of people and ecosystems is interwoven and that the fabric is fraying. We need to repair it, and we have the tools at hand to do so.”

    For more information, see: www.millenniumassessment.org.


Pilot analysis of global ecosystems (PAGE)

    The Pilot analysis of global ecosystems (PAGE) provides a “big picture” view of ecosystems using indicators and maps at global and continental scales. PAGE assessed five of the world's major ecosystem types:

  • PAGE: Agroecosystems - reveals that environmental damage threatens future world food production.
  • PAGE: Forest ecosystems - shows that forest areas in developed countries continue to increase slightly, while clearance for agriculture, development, and logging in developing countries is reducing their forests by at least 140,000 square kilometers every year.
  • PAGE: Freshwater systems - reveals that the world's freshwater systems are so degraded that their ability to support human, plant and animal life is greatly in peril.
  • PAGE: Grassland ecosystems - warns that the world's grasslands have declined in their extent and condition, as well as their ability to support human, plant, and animal life.
  • PAGE: Coastal and marine ecosystems - warns that the planet's coastal zone is in danger of loosing its capacity to provide fish, protect homes and businesses, reduce pollution and erosion, and sustain biological diversity.

    Together, these ecosystem types cover most of the world's terrestrial surface, a significant (and economically important) portion of the oceans, and account for the bulk of the goods and services humans derive from ecosystems.

A unique approach


    What makes the PAGE study unique is that it evaluated the state of ecosystems by examining the condition of a range of goods and services these ecosystems produce, including:

  • Food and fiber production
  • Provision of pure and sufficient water
  • Maintenance of biodiversity
  • Provision of recreation and tourism opportunities

    This “goods and services approach” makes explicit the link between the biological capacity of ecosystems and human well-being between the condition of ecosystems and their potential to support human development.

    Notably, the PAGE assessment considered not just the current level of production of goods and services, but also the capacity of the ecosystem to continue to produce these goods and services in the future. For example, in evaluating food production in the coastal and marine assessment, PAGE researchers looked not only at the current marine fish catch, but at trends in the condition of the fish stocks that contribute to this catch. In this way, the PAGE study to the limited extent possible addressed the question of the sustainability of current patterns of ecosystem use.

A global synthesis of current information


    The first objective of PAGE was to review existing environmental assessments and compile available data into a globally comprehensive package. PAGE researchers synthesized information from dozens of sources:

  • National, regional, and global data sets on food and fiber production.
  • Sectoral assessments of agriculture, forestry, biodiversity, water, and fisheries.
  • National State-of-the-Environment reports.
  • National and global assessments of ecosystem extent and change.
  • Biological assessments of particular species or environments.
  • Scientific research articles.
  • Various national and international data sets.

    For each good and service, the PAGE study asked why it was important, and what shape it was in. In some cases, researchers also included information on the plausible future condition of the ecosystem.

The “big picture,” but with limitations


    The goal of PAGE was not only to provide “state of the art” information on the condition of global ecosystems, but also to help identify gaps in data and information. In addition, PAGE was designed to demonstrate at a global level the utility of an integrated assessment approach one that simultaneously assesses the range of goods and services an ecosystem produces rather than focusing on just one or two, such as timber production or biodiversity.

    The PAGE findings provide a “big picture” view of ecosystem condition and change at a global or continental scale and indicate how these ecosystem characteristics are linked to development prospects. PAGE did not attempt to produce the more detailed site-specific data and information needed at a national scale by resource managers. Nor did it examine specific trade-offs among various goods and services, since that type of analysis is most meaningful at smaller scales, such as a nation or river basin, where these choices are actually made.

    A truly integrated ecosystem assessment would focus not on categories such as “forests” and “grasslands,” as PAGE has done, but instead on spatially contiguous regions, such as a river basin, or even a nation. The Amazon basin ecosystem, for example, includes agriculture, coastal areas, grasslands, forest and freshwater. An integrated assessment of the Amazon would examine goods and services produced from this matrix of land uses and land cover (and trade-offs among them) rather than examining each in isolation.

    However, at a global scale, the broad categories used by PAGE provide a useful way to present information, since the dominant issues and characteristics differ substantially from one category to the next. Moreover, these categories are useful to some of the global environmental institutions charged with the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems. For example, these are the same categories used by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Laying the groundwork for future assessments

    The PAGE process, through its identification of key ecosystem indicators and data gaps, and in the breadth of its findings, has laid the substantive groundwork for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment an international effort to track ecosystem conditions and trends in a way that will allow governments and communities to better manage their use of ecosystems.