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Poverty and Environmental Degradation

Environmental sustainability plays a critical role in global efforts to eradicate poverty. This relationship was underlined in 2005 as several major scientific studies highlighted the science behind the linkages among environmental degradation, poverty and human security, and proposed policy responses.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems. This concept is the cornerstone of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), the largest-ever international assessment of the world’s ecosystems and the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. The MA involved more than 1 300 experts from 95 countries, and released its first
findings in March 2005. It set out to survey changes in ecosystems, and to identify options and priorities for action to improve ecosystem management and contribute to human wellbeing and poverty eradication (MA 2005a). Humans depend on ecosystem services for their well-being. Ecosystem services range from the provision of food, water, timber, fibre and genetic resources to the regulation of water quality, waste treatment, soil formation, pollination, and nutrient cycling, as well as cultural services such as recreation and aesthetic enjoyment.

Approximately 60 per cent of the ecosystem services examined in the MA were found to be degraded or used unsustainably. In particular, at least 25 percent of commercially important fish stocks are over-harvested, and up to 25 per cent of global fresh water use exceeds long-term accessible supplies (MA 2005a). On the other hand, a few ecosystem services were found to have been enhanced in the past 50 years, in particular involving food: crops, livestock and aquaculture. The MA emphasized, however, that an increase in one ecosystem service often causes degradation in other services. For example, increasing food production through greater application of fertilizers often degrades water quality; expanding the area of cultivated land often results in biodiversity loss. At the same time, the degradation in ecosystems and their services, caused by human activities, has also given rise to unprecedented transformations in ecosystems and losses of biodiversity. The MA found that

more land was converted to cropland in the 30 years between 1950 and 1980, than in the 150 years between 1700 and 1850. More than a third of the world’s coral reefs and mangroves have been destroyed or degraded in the last few decades of the 20th century. With medium certainty, the MA concluded that human activity in recent centuries has increased the rate of species extinction by up to 1 000 times above the natural background rate, and today, as much as 30 per cent of mammal, bird and amphibian species are threatened with extinction. Ecosystem services, poverty and human well-being. The MA found that degradation of ecosystem services often harms the world’s poorest people most, and in some cases, is the principal cause of poverty. Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene cause diseases among half of the urban population of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, with approximately 1.7 million deaths annually worldwide. Dryland ecosystems are home to one third of the world’s population, but have the lowest levels of human well-being as measured by indicators such as per capita GDP and infant mortality. Desertification and low water availability threaten millions of livelihoods (MA 2005a). Degradation of some ecosystem services is sometimes traded off with gains in other services, but many decisions taken often do not take full account of the value of services lost. Many of the benefits ecosystems provide to societies – such as water purification, flood regulation and provision of aesthetic benefits – do not pass through the formal market system although they are often among the most valuable. For example, Muthurajawela Marsh, a coastal peat bog in Sri Lanka of only 3 100 hectares, provides an estimated US$5 million in annual benefits through its role in local flood control. The MA also found the economic benefits of sustainably managed ecosystems to be higher than those of ecosystem conversion in locations as diverse as Canada, Cameroon and Thailand (Figure 1). However, private (market) incentives for conversion remain strong, compared to social (non-marketed) benefits of sustainable management (MA 2005a).

The MA therefore concluded that degradation of ecosystem services poses a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Socioeconomic policy changes will play an important role in achieving the MDGs, but many of the MDGs and associated targets are unlikely to be achieved without sound management of ecosystems. This is particularly so for the goals related to hunger, disease, child mortality and environmental sustainability. Scenarios and solutions. The MA describes four scenarios, which explore possible futures for ecosystems and human well-being. Under all four scenarios, the pressures on ecosystems are projected to continue growing during the first half of this century. The most important drivers of changes in ecosystems in the coming decades include habitat transformation, overexploitation, invasive alien species, pollution, and anthropogenic climate change. With continued growth in the consumption of ecosystem services, the MA scenarios project that food security will not be achieved even by 2050, that services from fresh water resources will continue to deteriorate, and that biodiversity will continue to be lost (MA 2005a).

The MA urges significant changes in policies, institutions and practices to mitigate the negative consequences of ecosystem change. One proposal is to integrate ecosystem management goals within broader development planning frameworks, such as the Poverty Reduction Strategies prepared by developing countries for the World Bank. The elimination of subsidies that promote excessive use of ecosystem services can also produce net benefits, if accompanied by compensatory mechanisms for affected poor people. Mechanisms such as ecolabelling that promote sustainability through consumer choices are encouraged. The MA also identified a number of principles to improve decision-making processes, including use of the best available information, giving consideration to marketed and non-marketed ecosystem services, stakeholder participation, and regular monitoring and evaluation. While the MA synthesized a large amount of existing knowledge, it also identified gaps in knowledge and monitoring: for instance, on land degradation in drylands, non-marketed ecosystem services and non-linear ecosystemchanges. Significant advances are needed in models linking ecological and social processes
(MA 2005a).

The United Nations 2005 World Summit addressed most major
environmental issues.
Source: Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

2005 World Summit
Key poverty, development and environment issues were taken up during the UN 2005 World Summit held in New York in September – the largest gathering of world leaders in history. The Summit produced the 2005 World Summit Outcome document that embodies the integration of conservation and development-related goals. It addresses most major environmental issues, including biodiversity, climate change, integrated water resources management, sustainable consumption and production, disaster reduction, forestry, chemicals and hazardous wastes, and oceans and seas (United Nations 2005b). The Outcome endorses the MDGs, which
include the goal of ensuring environmental sustainability (MDG 7). Countries also pledged to adopt (by 2006) and implement comprehensive national development strategies to achieve the MDGs. On biodiversity, the Outcome endorses the goal of agreeing on an international regime to promote fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. The Outcome highlights the need to act with “resolve and urgency” to address the many challenges faced in tackling climate change, promoting clean energy, meeting energy needs and achieving sustainable development.

The need to create a worldwide early warning system for natural hazards is also supported, and an agreement to speed up the transfer of affordable and cleaner energy efficiency and conservation technologies to developing countries “on favourable terms” was articulated. Other events held alongside the World Summit also addressed poverty-environment issues and launched new initiatives from governments, intergovernmental organizations and civil society. The Forum for Energy Ministers of Africa announced a goal of ensuring that at least 50 per cent of Africa’s poor have access to sustainable modern energy services and technologies by 2015 (UNEP and UNDP 2005). The Swedish Government declared that it would target an estimated US$150 million in 2006 to invest in environmental protection for the poor in developing countries (UNEP and UNDP 2005). Meanwhile, former US President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative generated nearly US$1.3 billion in funding commitments to tackle problems of climate change, poverty, governance and security (Barber 2005).


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