Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
What is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment?
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) is a United Nations project designed to assess the consequences of ecosystem changes for human well-being. It was initiated in 2001 as the result of an earlier study, “People and Ecosystems: the Fraying Web of Life” which reported in 2000 that the world’s major ecosystems were in decline, and that significant information about ecosystem functioning was simply not available.
The MA was conducted under the auspices of the UNEP, and was governed by a multistakeholder board including international institutions, governments, business, NGOs, and indigenous peoples. Over 1300 experts from 95 countries were involved in producing what is the most comprehensive review of the planet’s ecosystems. The objective of the multiyear exercise was to both assess the consequences of ecosystem changes for human well-being, and to establish a scientific basis for action to conserve the sustainable use of ecosystems and their contribution to human well-being.
The MA addressed a series of key questions:
- How have ecosystems and their services changes?
- What has caused these changes?
- How have these changes affected human well-being?
- How might ecosystems change in the future and what are the implications for human well-being?
- What options exist to enhance the conservation of ecosystems and their services to human well-being?
The MA was not designed as a measure of sustainable scale; however, its findings are highly relevant to this issue. The MA Synthesis Report was released in March, 2005 1
Major Findings of the MA
Some of the key findings of the MA Synthesis Report are perhaps best stated in the report’s own words:
“At the heart of this report is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” …..(bold added)
“As human demands increase in coming decades, these systems will face even greater pressures – and the risk of further weakening the natural infrastructure on which all societies depend.” …
“Protecting and improving our future well-being requires wiser and less destructive use of natural assets. This in turn involves major changes in the way we make and implement decisions.
Above all, protection of these assets can no longer be seen as an optional extra (bold added), to be considered once more pressing concerns such as wealth creation or national security have been dealt with.”
These observations from the report, are based on the following major findings from the Synthesis Report:
Four Main Findings:
- 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, freshwater, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in thediversity of life on Earth.
- The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems.
- The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century and is a barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
- The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services can be partially met under some scenarios that the MA has considered but these involve significant changes in policies, institutions and practices, that are not currently under way. Many options exist to conserve or enhance specific ecosystem services in ways that reduce negative tradeoffs or that provide positive synergies with other ecosystem services
The MA provides a detailed summary of the many ways in which human use of ecosystems is unsustainable, getting worse, and posing serious threats to human societies. A popularized, but scientifically accurate, summary of the full, lengthy report is available2.
Strengths of the MA
The MA is one of the best descriptions of the impacts of human activities on ecosystems around the world, and has several strengths:
- There is an explicit connection between ecosystem functions and human well-being; the disproportionate impact of ecosystem degradation on the poor is acknowledged, while clearly stating that wealthy nations will also be affected.
- There is recognition that the situation regarding ecosystem degradation is serious and getting worse; the report clearly states that use of many ecosystems is currently unsustainable.
- There is recognition that there will be increasing demands on these already strained ecosystems if we continue our present course of activities.
- There is recognition of the potential for abrupt, non-linear changes in ecosystem functioning as a result of continuing strains on these systems, and that the timing of these non-linear changes are difficult to predict.
- There is explicit recognition that the non-market functions of ecosystems have great value in terms of human well-being and that market mechanisms alone are not able to conserve and restore ecosystem functioning.
- There is explicit recognition that major changes in economic activities, business operations, institutional and government decision making and life-style adjustments are all needed if ecosystem services are to be sustainable; economic growth is identified as one of the drivers of ecosystem decline (but not as the main driver as identified in Causes of Scale Problems)
- The report identifies a variety of mechanisms to restore and conserve ecosystem services; furthermore, it acknowledges that most of the needed changes are not currently being implemented. Some of the needed solutions are identified below.
What Can we do about it?
Some key steps available to reduce the degradation of ecosystem services:
Change the economic background to decision-making
• Make sure the value of all ecosystem services, not just those bought and sold in the market, are taken into account when making decisions
• Remove subsidies to agriculture, fisheries and energy that cause harm to people and the environment.
• Introduce payments to landowners in return for managing their lands in ways that protect ecosystem services, such as water quality and carbon storage, that are of value to society.
• Establish market mechanisms to reduce nutrient releases and carbon emissions in the most cost-effective way.
Improve policy, planning, and management
• Integrate decision-making between different departments and sectors, as well as international institutions, to ensure that policies are focused on protection of ecosystems.
• Include sound management of ecosystem services in all regional planning decisions and in the poverty reduction strategies being prepared by many developing countries
• Empower marginalized groups to influence decisions affecting ecosystem services, and recognize in law the local communities’ ownership over natural resources
• Establish additional protected areas, particularly in marine systems, and provide greater financial and management support to those that already exist.
• Use all relevant forms of knowledge and information about ecosystems in decision-making, including the knowledge of local and indigenous groups.
Influence individual behavior
• Provide public education on why and how to reduce consumption of threatened ecosystem services.
• Establish reliable certification systems to give people the choice to buy sustainably harvested products.
• Give people access to information about ecosystems and decisions affecting their services.
Develop and use environment-friendly technology
• Invest in agricultural science and technology aimed at increasing food production with minimal harmful trade-offs.
• Restore degraded ecosystems.
• Promote technologies to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
This is an important report and contains much useful information about ecosystem services and their connections to human well being. It adds to our knowledge of ecosystem services (while acknowledging there continues to be serious gaps in what we know). As a consensus report of over 1300 international experts, and considering its sponsorship by the United Nations General Assembly, it is a major wake-up call to all nations and all peoples of the grave situation our planet is in.
Limitations of the MA
Strengths can also be weaknesses. As a consensus of multiple stakeholders the report had to be acceptable to all parties involved, including the governments who make up the United Nations, and those with vested interests in the status quo. One of the things that is remarkable about the report is the strength of its conclusions despite the need to satisfy all participant groups, and to not find fault with governments or other sectors who have contributed, knowingly or otherwise, to the ecological degradation the report summarizes.
While the report does add detail to what we know about ecosystem services, in a sense there is nothing new in the report in that it has been know for some time that many ecosystems are being used unsustainably. What the report lacks is an explicit statement that the solution to the problem is not a matter of more scientific information, but of political will.
The report identifies a variety of causes of ecosystem degradation, but fails to articulate the underlying, common element in all the identified sources, namely material throughput driven by economic growth.
The MA conceptual framework does not explicitly use a sustainable scale persepctive, but is nontheless compatible with such an approach. Much of the content of the report could be reframed within a sustainable scale perspective (see A Sustainable Scale Perspective), and many of the solutions proposed are similar to those proposed here. A sustainable scale perspective can help place the MA findings into a broader conceptual framework; such a step would assist in assessing the risks involved in further ecosystem degradation, and point the way to additional solutions (see Attractive Solutions).
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being. Washington: Island Press, 2003.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. "Living Beyond Our Means" (2005): 3.
1Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. "Synthesis Report" (2005) 16.