A report, prepared by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), entitled “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” concludes that many of the planet’s essential systems are endangered, primarily due to human activity. It warns that, if left unchecked, the consequences could be dire.
The report analyzes “the value of the world’s forests, wetlands, coral reefs and other ecosystems for fighting poverty and delivering sustainable development,” said the bulletin. UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said it makes the case that ecosystems and the services they provide are financially significant and that to degrade and damage them is tantamount to economic suicide. The Assessment, in which UNEP has played a key role, asserts that humankind is running down its “natural capital.”
It argues that the loss of natural services, such as the purification of the air and water, protection from disasters and provision of medicines, as a result of damaged and degraded ecosystems have become a significant barrier in the quest to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
Attending the launch of the report in Beijing, China, Toepfer stated: “There are many pressing reasons to value ecosystems and the extraordinary range of services they provide. The habitats, wildlife and landscapes of this planet are sources of beauty, focuses of spirituality and culturally significant for people, communities and countries.
“They are also, and this is especially true for the poor, the basis of livelihoods from forestry and fishing to farming and tourism. For too long their economic value has been ignored. Ecosystem services have been treated as free and their exploitation, limitless,” he continued.
He indicated that the assessment is one of the first to provide insights into the “economic importance of ecosystem services” and said it provides some new and additional arguments for respecting and conserving the Earth’s life support systems. “I am not one of those who believe everything in this world should be boiled down to dollars and cents,” Toepfer noted. “But these estimated values are a good start and are a useful and additional reason to care for and respect natural capital alongside financial and human capital.”
UNEP noted that the Report, compiled by over 1,300 experts, departs from the usual focus on endangered species and habitats in order to spotlight the economic value of protecting the environment. For the insurance industry maintaining fragile ecosystems, especially in coastal areas, could well mean reducing the risks of losses from floods, hurricanes and typhoons.
The UNEP said the assessment “claims that intact and healthy ecosystems are often worth more than altered, damaged and degraded ones. Wetlands are important habitats for fish, birds and plants. They are also natural water pollution filters and water storage facilities. They also have high recreational value.”
Some of the highlights discussed in the report include the following:
— An intact wetland, in this case in Canada, is worth $6,000 a hectare whereas one that has been cleared for intensive agriculture is worth only around $2,000 a hectare.
— The same argument is made for intact mangroves versus the same area cleared for shrimp farming–$1,000 a hectare in Thailand versus about $200 a hectare when cleared for aquaculture.
— The recreational value of ecosystem services is cited in the case of Marine Management Areas in Hawaii. Among six of these areas the recreational value ranges from $300,00 to $35 million.
— The 3,000 hectare Muthurajawela Marsh in Sri Lanka, a coastal peat bog, is valued at $5 million a year for the flood control services it provides locally.
The report also looks at the costs of damaging and degrading ecosystems as follows:
— The collapse in the early 1990s of the Newfoundland cod fishery due to over-fishing put tens of thousands of people out of work and cost $2 billion in income support and retraining.
— Eutrophication in England and Wales as a result of the over-use of fertilizers and other sources such as waste water caused damage to freshwaters amounting to up to $160 million a year in the 1990s.
— The burning of 10 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests in the late 1990s, cost an estimated $9 billion in increased health care, lost production and lost tourism revenues.
— The net annual loss linked with invasive, ‘alien’, species in the Cape Floral region of South Africa is estimated at $93 million.
The report also notes that “the costs of restoring ecosystems can be high, indicating that it is cheaper to conserve them rather than pollute and clean up afterwards.” It cites the State of Louisiana in the U.S., which has put in place a $14 billion wetland restoration plan to protect 10,000 square kilometers [app. 6000 sq. miles] of marsh, swamp and barrier islands in part to reduce storm surges generated by hurricanes.”
The report also stresses that human security is put at risk from ecosystem decline. It argues that the severity and frequency of floods and fires has been aggravated by damage to the Earth’s natural capital. “For example between 1990 and 1999, more than 100,000 people were killed by floods causing damages totaling $243 billion,” said the bulletin. “This is partly blamed on the canalization of rivers and other natural water bodies.”
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