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Environmental Protection & Preservation

Scientists Look Ahead Five Decades in State-of-the-Planet Report

The number of extreme events, such as hurricanes and famine, affecting at least one million people will increase over the next 45 years if a certain scenario of world development plays out. Demand for water will increase enormously -- between 30% and 85% -- especially in Africa and Asia, by the year 2050. But human health may improve as public health measures advance vaccine development and lessen the impact of epidemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

These are just a few of the many findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) published in a four-volume set by Island Press and released today. The MA is the product of a four-year global research initiative, commissioned by the United Nations, in which 1,300 scientists from 95 nations explore the complex interactions between human well-being and the environment.

"The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment tells us that there is an inextricable link between the health of humans and the health of the planet. We can no longer ignore the enormous economic and social benefits, such as climate regulation and water purification, provided by nature's fragile ecosystems," said Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation. "The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an extensively researched, scientifically grounded roadmap for why and how we should slow or reverse today's ecosystem degradation and chart a path toward sustainable human development."

The MA looks ahead 50 years from the year 2000 to paint four alternate pictures, or scenarios, of life on earth. Current estimates of three billion more people and a quadrupling of the world economy by 2050 show that our consumption of biological and physical resources will skyrocket putting much more pressure on ecosystems. But the scenarios demonstrate that the condition of ecosystems in the future could be significantly worse or better than in the present -- depending on policy choices. For example, wise use of environmental technology, investing in education and health, and reducing poverty can reduce pressure on ecosystems.

"Despite what looks like steady global decline, this is a story of hope. The MA gives us a powerful way to explore the possible impacts of broad policy directions for life on Earth and tells us that changes in policy can make a difference," said Dr. Stephen Carpenter, Professor of Limnology at the University of Wisconsin and one of the chief authors of the MA.

"Many of the policies identified by the MA as positive for both the environment and mankind are used somewhere today. So if we have the political will, we have the ability to implement them on a global scale," added Carpenter.

The four scenarios are descriptions of plausible futures -- based on changes in such factors as economic and population growth, climate change, and trade -- told from the point of view of someone looking back from 2050 at what has happened in the world since 2000.

If certain assumptions play out by 2050, according to the MA, water will be more plentiful in nearly all regions because of climate change, but pressure on ecosystems to provide water to meet growing demand increases. Food security is likely to remain out of reach for many people, despite increasing food supply, but child malnutrition, while not eradicated, will likely drop over the coming decades. By the end of the century, climate change may be the predominant driver of biodiversity loss and changes in ecosystem services globally.

"Ecosystem services have dramatically improved human well-being over the past centuries. People are better nourished and live longer and healthier lives than ever before, incomes have risen, and political institutions are more open," stated Dr. Walter Reid, Director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and Professor with the Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. "But these gains have been achieved at a growing cost. It's now time for us to measure the economic value of these services so we can make better decisions about our future."

"Payments for ecosystem services can be an effective way to protect services that people rely on such as clean water, while also protecting the environment," said Dr. Prabhu Pingali of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The MA represents the first time scientists have looked at how the health of the environment contributes to human well-being and how policy decisions we make today shape the world of tomorrow.

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