United Nations Launches Extensive Study of Earth’s Ecosystems

Today, 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. 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, co-chair 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 inter-woven 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 co-chaired 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.”

© 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment