January 30, 2006

Millennium Assessment project urges collective effort to curb losses in ecosystem services

The ever-increasing worldwide demand for what the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) project calls "ecosystem services," i.e. food, fresh water and fibre (wood) has been met at the expense of the restorative capacity of these systems. Moreover, says a new, far-reaching analysis, some continuing, large-scale, human-induced ecosystem changes such as climate change, excessive nutrient supply and desertification are effectively irreversible. Urgent and collective mitigation action is needed, building on existing efforts, to limit the degree of change and its negative impact on the environment and human health.

The four "foundation" reports of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released on January 19, present four distinct policy approaches to managing ecosystem services in the face of growing human demand for them. The 500- to 800-page reports represent the work of more than 1,300 experts from 95 countries who, as participants in the MA project, reviewed scientific literature and models, databases and information from the private sector, including industry and indigenous peoples, from 2001 through to March 2005.

One of the main conclusions is that although there are still gaps in information, enough is known to enable wiser decisions to be made about the protection and use of ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was initiated in 2001 for the purpose of making the information that is known available to decision-makers.

The first report examines the Current State and Trends. Among the leading trends in ecosystem services are serious inequalities in access to food, even though global food production has more than doubled in the last 40 years.

Moreover, the supply of some ecosystem services has increased at the expense of others. For example, gains in production of food and fibre have been achieved through conversion of habitat, degradation of waters and reduced biodiversity, says the report.

Another critical trend is toward a decline in the capacity of ecosystems to render pollutants harmless, keep nutrient levels in balance, provide protection from natural disasters, and control outbreaks of pests and diseases. Weakened ecosystems are increasingly vulnerable to the spread of invasive species, which is occurring in many places, the report adds.

Today's situation, says the MA, differs from any other period in history in two ways. First, human impacts are ubiquitous and of greater intensity than at any time in the past. Secondly, in most cases, we can no longer plead ignorance of the consequences. It is no longer possible, as in previous eras, to escape the results of natural disasters or pollution by simply moving elsewhere. Displacement of the problem to other places and future generations, or starting afresh in a new place, are no longer viable options, states the report.

The MA observes that while most of the world's ecosystems have been greatly modified by humans, urbanization is not inherently bad for ecosystems. Provided the ecosystems surrounding urban areas are well managed, they can provide a high level of biodiversity food production, water and other ecosystem services. Currently, however, with few exceptions, the MA finds little evidence of cities making substantial efforts to reduce their global ecosystem burdens. A single city, it states, may be sustained by ecosystem services derived from an area 100 times larger than the city itself.

The second, Scenarios report details the four potential approaches to managing ecosystem services. While scenarios are a valuable tool for analyzing complex systems and understanding possible outcomes, the MA notes that no single scenario presented in this volume projects the optimal outcome. Its aim is to help decision-makers and managers determine the development paths that will better maintain the resilience of ecosystems and help reduce the risk of damage to human well-being and the environment. A selected mix of policies from two or more scenarios may yield better outcomes than any single approach.

*The Global Orchestration approach is defined as socially conscious globalization. It emphasizes equity, economic growth, and public goods, but reacts to ecosystem problems only when they reach critical stages.

*Order from Strength represents a regionalized, fragmented approach, in which the emphasis is on security and economic growth, again reacting to ecosystem problems only as they arise.

*Adapting Mosaic is also a regionalized approach, but one that emphasizes proactive management of ecosystems, local adaptation, and flexible governance. This approach is also characterized by better information-sharing about successful methods and the creation of networks among communities, regions and even nations to better manage issues such as climate change and marine pollution whose impacts are global in nature.

*TechnoGarden is a globalized approach with a strong emphasis on green technology and highly managed, often engineered ecosystems. The result is improved efficiency of ecosystem service provision, and investment in green technology addresses a wide range of socio-economic as well as environmental issues. This scenario is not entirely utopian, however: it comes with the risks inherent in large-scale, human-made solutions and rigid control of ecosystems.

The Policy Responses report is based on a wide-ranging review of responses and interventions applied by different decision-makers in various economic, social and institutional settings. It outlines the characteristics common to successful responses, discusses methods for choosing responses, and presents promising examples.

The MA lists four elements common to successful responses to environmental issues:

1. effective co-ordination among different levels of decision-making;

2. transparent stakeholder participation;

3. the factoring in of potential trade-offs and positive synergies associated with response options and their outcomes into the design of the final response; and

4. integration into mainstream economic policy and development planning of consideration of ecosystem impacts and the potential contributions of ecosystem services. In particular, the report notes that any strategies aimed at achieving Millennium Development Goals and targets for alleviating poverty, hunger, disease, child mortality and access to water will be undermined if such strategies do not include consideration of ecosystem management.

Decision-making processes concerning ecosystems and their management vary widely among jurisdictions, institutions and cultures. The MA review has singled out several elements common to the processes that yield the best decisions and outcomes. Among other things, these processes:

*use the best available information, taking into account the value of marketed and non-marketed ecosystem services;

*ensure transparency and effective, informed participation of major stakeholders;

*strive for efficiency, but not at the expense of effectiveness;

*ensure accountability and provide for regular monitoring and evaluation; and

*consider cumulative and cross-scale impacts, and assess trade-offs across different ecosystem services.

The MA evaluated 78 response options for ecosystem services, integrated ecosystem management, waste management, climate change, and conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The most promising were grouped into subject areas: institutions and governance; economics and incentives; social and behavioural responses; technological responses; and knowledge and cognitive responses. For each option, the main sectors responsible for decision-making were noted - government, business and industry, or non-governmental organization (including research and civil society interest groups). In many cases, decision-making would be shared by two or more of these.

Among the most promising options were:

*development of institutions to regulate interactions between markets and ecosystems;

*development of institutional frameworks designed to promote a shift from highly sectoral resource management approaches to more integrated approaches;

*elimination of subsidies that promote excessive use of ecosystem services (transferring these subsidies, where possible, to payments for non-marketed ecosystem services);

*greater use of economic instruments and market-based approaches to manage ecosystem services (e.g. taxes or user fees for activities with "external" costs, payment for ecosystem services, creation of markets, including through cap-and-trade systems);

*promotion of technologies to increase crop yields without harmful impacts related to water, nutrient and pesticide use;

*promotion of technologies to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions;

*restoration of ecosystem services; and

*incorporation of both market and non-market values of ecosystems in resource management and investment decisions.

An innovative part of the MA project was its Multi-Scale Assessments, a series of sub-global reviews carried out in 34 areas around the world. These areas ranged in size from small villages to larger regions and even entire countries, such as Portugal; in Canada, the review focused on coastal British Columbia. The purpose of these assessments was to analyze the importance of ecosystem services for human well-being not just on a global, but on a local, regional or national scale.

These assessments brought clearly into focus the importance of ecosystem services to many dimensions of human well-being, some of which are best observed at sub-global scales. Observation at multiple scales also served to better reveal the decline of ecosystem services in many locations worldwide, and showed that local communities are not mere spectators, they play an active role in managing the capacity of ecosystems to deliver services.

The final, Multi-Scale Assessments report notes that the scale at which an assessment is conducted significantly influences both definition of the problem and selection of solutions and responses. Overall, the sub-global assessment process helped generate new baseline information, tools and methodologies, all of which will be of use to stakeholders and will contribute to eventually bringing more products and outcomes to fruition, says the report.

An accompanying volume, Summaries for Decision-makers, brings together the main findings from the four technical assessment volumes. The MA reports may be viewed on-line at www.millenniumassessment.org.

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