Allowing degradation of our planet is ‘economic suicide’

Businesses and governments around the world must stop treating our ecosystems like inexhaustible supplies of natural resources, according to a shock report showing the economic implications of not protecting our planet.

Published this week, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) report put a spotlight on the value of the world’s forests, wetlands, coral reefs and other ecosystems, showing how important they were for fighting poverty and delivering sustainable development.

Taking an approach never previously used towards conservation issues, the report points out that ecosystems and the services they provide are financially significant, and that to degrade and damage them was tantamount to economic suicide.

“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 service on which humanity relies continue to be degraded,” the MA report warned.

It also stated that scientific evidence showed that the harmful consequences of this degradation would grow significantly worse over the next 50 years if world leaders and businesses did nothing to prevent it.

Although evidence remains incomplete, the assessment contains enough for experts to warn that the ongoing degradation of over half of the ecosystems examined is increasing the likelihood of potentially abrupt changes that will seriously affect human well-being.

This includes the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, the creation of “dead zones” along the coasts, the collapse of fisheries and large shifts in regional climate.

“The habitats, wildlife and landscapes of this planet are sources of beauty, but are also the basis of livelihoods for forestry and fishing to farming and tourism. For too long their economic value has been ignored – ecosystem services have been treated as free and exploitation, limitless,” executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Klaus Toepfer warned.

“This assessment gives us, for the first time, an insight into the economic importance of ecosystem services and some new and additional arguments for respecting and conserving the Earth’s life support systems.”

According to the report, positive action must urgently be taken to stop humankind from running down its own “natural capital” – but this would require radical changes to the way nature is treated at every level of decision making, and new means of cooperation between government, business and civil society now needed to be explored.

Chief conservation officer for WWF Carter Roberts said it was about time that ecosystems were considered as capital assets and treated with more respect as they supported human well-being just as much as they did biodiversity.

“This really is a scientific wake-up call about the importance and urgency of conservation,” Mr Roberts said. “The assessment removes any doubts that the quality of humanity’s future is tied to our treatment of the natural world – even to ecosystems far away.”

The scope of this assessment reaches right around the globe – according to its findings, a total of 60% of the ecosystem services that support life on earth are currently being degraded by human activity or are being used unsustainably, presenting a serious road block to the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by the world’s leaders at the United Nations in 2000.

“This authoritative and depressing report shows that across the world, fisheries are being plundered not harvested, forests destroyed not managed and coral reefs poisoned not nurtured – even our fresh water is being made incapable of supporting life by escalating levels of pollution,” director of conservation at the RSPB, Dr Mark Avery commented at the assessment’s launch this week.

“We are trashing our planet and unless we reverse this vandalism that is destroying our own life support systems then Tony Blair’s hopes for alleviating poverty in Africa will be doomed to failure (see related story).”

“If this assessment finally links our own future with that of the planet’s ecosystems in the minds of world leaders then it will have done a great service to humanity and to the future of life on earth.”

By Jane Kettle

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