Environmental Degradation and Human Well-Being: Report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment


The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an elaborate international project set up in 2001 under UN auspices, aims “to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and to establish the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and their contributions to human well-being.” It involves over 1,000 experts as panel and working group members, authors, and reviewers. Numerous reports are planned, covering the global and regional situations, scenarios of the future, and options for sustainable management. The first of these, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report, was issued in March 2005.

The Report is organized around four main findings. The first two concern the past: what has happened and what it has meant for human welfare. The other two concern the future: what may happen and what might be done to improve matters. The time frame is the last 50 years and the next 50. Ecological change is assessed in terms of ecosystem services—the benefits humans receive from ecosystems. These include: provisioning services (supplying food, fresh water, timber, etc.); regulating services (climate regulation, erosion control, pollination); cultural services (recreation, aesthetic enjoyment); and supporting services (soil formation, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling). Of24 services examined in the assessment, 15 are determined to be in decline or are being drawn on at an unsustainable rate. The welfare costs of these changes are disproportionately borne by the poor. Four world scenarios are developed to explore plausible ecological futures, varying in degrees of regionalism and economic liberalization and in approaches to ecosystem management. Under all of them the outlook is for continued pressure on consumption of ecosystem services and continued loss of biodiversity. In particular, ecosystem degradation “is already a significant barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by the international community in September 2000 and the harmful consequences of this degradation could grow significantly worse in the next 50 years.” Remedy will be demanding: “An effective set of responses to ensure the sustainable management of ecosystems requires substantial changes in institutions and governance, economic policies and incentives, social and behavior factors, technology, and knowledge.” Such changes “are not currently under way.”

The excerpt below, covering Findings #1 and #2 of the Assessment, is taken from the section of the report titled Summary for Decision-makers. Most of the charts are omitted. Parenthetical levels of certainty correspond to the following probabilities: very certain, ≥98%; high certainty, 85–98%; medium, 65–85%; low, 52–65%. The full report is available at http://www.millenniumassessment.org.

Finding #1: Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.