"Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continue to be degraded," the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report, conducted by 1300 experts from 95 countries, said.

The study, released on Wednesday, says the ongoing degradation of ecosystem services such as fresh water, the regulation of air and regional climate as well as natural hazards and pests, is a roadblock to the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.

Although evidence remains incomplete, there is enough for the experts to warn that the ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystem services examined is increasing the likelihood of potentially abrupt changes that will seriously affect human well-being.

Sudden changes

This includes the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of "dead zones" along coastlines, the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate.

"We're seeing an increasing risk of abrupt changes in many ecosystems," Walt Reid, executive director of the assessment, said.

The world's poorest suffer most
from changes in ecosystems

The report also reveals that it is the world's poorest people who suffer most from ecosystem changes.

The regions facing significant problems of ecosystem degradation - sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, some regions in Latin America, and parts of South and Southeast Asia - are also facing the greatest challenges in achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

The report says humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the past 50 years than in any other period, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel.

This has caused substantial and largely irreversible loss in diversity of life on Earth.

Growing cost

Only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the past 50 years: crop, livestock and aquaculture production and increased carbon sequestration for global climate regulation.

"It lies within the power of human societies to ease the strains we are putting on the nature services of the planet, while continuing to use them to bring better living standards to all"

Board of Directors,
Millennium Assessment

All four contributed to economic development, but have been achieved at the growing cost of other services.

Experts say these problems will substantially diminish the benefits for future generations.

The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century, and is a barrier to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, including substantially reducing hunger and diseases.

The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands can be met under some scenarios involving significant policy and institutional changes, but such changes are not currently under way.

Will to change

The report mentions options that exist to conserve or enhance ecosystem services that reduce negative trade-offs or that will positively impact other services.

Reversing the degradation of
ecosystems will not be easy

"The overriding conclusion of this assessment is that it lies within the power of human societies to ease the strains we are putting on the nature services of the planet, while continuing to use them to bring better living standards to all," the Millennium Assessment board of directors said in a statement. 

"Achieving this, however, will require radical changes in the way nature is treated at every level of decision-making and new ways of cooperation between government, business and civil society. The warning signs are there for all of us to see. The future now lies in our hands."

"Governments should recognise that natural services have costs," AH Zakri of the UN University and a co-chair of the report said. "Protection of natural services is unlikely to be a priority for those who see them as free and limitless."