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Last week's report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides a timely reminder of the plight facing the global environment. But its scare tactics could alienate those whose support is needed to reverse current trends.

Ever since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided the scientific trigger that led to the Kyoto Protocol on reducing carbon emissions, other bodies have sought to emulate its success.

Supporters of organisations such as the InterAcademy Council, for example, have used the IPCC experience to argue the case for similar initiatives in other scientific fields where, it is often claimed, a global scientific consensus should, almost automatically, form the basis for global action.

Such has been the case with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which presented its main report last week (see Healthy ecosystems 'critical in the fight against poverty'). The idea for such a report is some ten-years old. It began when scientists working for a group of international non-governmental organisations, led by the US-based World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, decided that they needed to get a message across to politicians and decisions makers, particularly in developing countries.

The message in question is that dramatic changes in policy and lifestyles are required if the current destruction of ecosystems — defined as 'a community of species and the physical environment in which they live' — is to be halted, if not reversed.

The issues addressed in the assessment are obviously vital for the future of human life on the planet. In particular, those responsible for its compilation point out — with considerable justification — that a degraded ecosystem increases the difficulty of communities escaping from the trap of poverty; polluted drinking water increases the risk of diseases, just as degraded soil makes food production more difficult. Indeed the report makes the important point that reversing ecosystem decline is essential for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Scientific focus

Furthermore we live in a society where shock tactics are often required to communicate simple ideas in a sufficiently dramatic fashion to attract the interests of news editors and headline writers. Indeed the importance attached to operating in this way reflects how the media has become a prime channel for communicating information to policymakers.

The problem with the assessment, however, is that, unlike those produced at regular intervals by the IPCC, there is no clear scientific focus that leads directly to a policy agenda. In the case of global warming, the scientific community has been able to establish a consensus on critical issues at the heart of the debate, namely that man-made global warming is occurring at a particular rate, and that certain consequences are likely unless this process is stopped.

The ecosystem report, in contrast, spreads its net more widely. The result is a much broader picture. But it also means that attempts to simplify the assessment's message tend to slip into statements about human life being in peril from an unspecific threat, perhaps best characterised as human lifestyle. This may make for good headlines that talk of the world being, as one newspaper put it, being "on the brink of disaster". But, in itself, it does not necessarily provide good pointers for policymakers wanting to know what practical steps need to be taken, and how urgently.

Important messages

The value of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) lies in the way that it highlights the many different ways in which natural ecosystems are under threat. The litany it recites is certainly a grim one, ranging from warnings about the algal blooms caused by excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers, to the fact that 60 per cent of the 'ecosystem services' looked at in the assessment — each loosely defined as the benefits that humankind obtains from ecosystems — are currently being degraded or used unsustainably.

Thus even though the assessment contains no new data, it provides a valuable synthesis of much available knowledge on species and ecosystems that already exists with bodies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (which has some of the best data on forests), as well as the 'Red List' of threatened species.

Equally important is the way that the report emphasises that one of the main reasons for the widespread destruction of biodiversity is that, in a materialistic, growth-oriented society, biodiversity tends too often to be seen as a 'free' resource that is there for the taking. Attaching a price to environmental resources, argue environmental economists, would immediately reduce the pressure on them (in a similar fashion to the way that introducing a charge for cars entering the centre of London has dramatically reduced both traffic congestion and air pollution in the British capital).

Finally, the MA will have done much to energise ecosystems research in developing countries. Abdul Hamid Zakri, co-chair of the MA board, points out that about 30 per cent of its 1,400 scientists are from developing countries — and that much of the work for the report was done at the local level in developing countries.

Dangers of 'meta-messaging'

The problem is that the 'meta-messages' in the report can become disconnected from policymaking on the ground. Part of the reason for this strategy has been historical. Although the MA was formally carried out after a request from UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in 2000, its origins lie five years earlier.

In 1995, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with the help of conservation groups, published a comprehensive inventory of species and ecosystems called The Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA). This was intended to inform policymaking in biodiversity, particularly through the new UN Biodiversity Convention that had been signed at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, three years earlier.

But when the convention's scientific, technical and technological advisory body met in Paris in 1995, delegates – most of whom came from developing countries — rejected this assessment, arguing that its advice was redundant given that the convention already had its own separate scientific advisory body.

There was also concern among developing countries that endorsing the GBA would in effect also allow international conservation groups a voice in their development — which they feared would mean more emphasis on conservation and less on development.

The GBA's rejection left its authors frustrated, and soon afterwards a number of them — as well as other scientists and conservationists — began to plan what would become the MA, an even more comprehensive scientific assessment. This would seek to include officials from all of the UN conservation-related conventions right from the outset, and emphasise the links between species, ecosystems and quality of life. In doing so, it would be more difficult for developing countries to ignore and thus, hopefully, avoid the fate of the GBA.

The result is a document that — like the report of the Millennium Task Force on Environmental Sustainability — argues that the MDGs will not be achieved unless ecosystem decline is reversed. (The overlap is not surprising, given the overlapping membership of the two bodies). Both are guided by a belief that this environmental sustainability is very much an orphan within the broader MDGs, and needs its own awareness campaign of which the MA is a part.

But the impact of the MA on policymakers and policymaking in developing countries remains unclear. This is no longer because of the involvement of conservation groups; almost ten years on from the GBA, many now play a major role in environmental protection in developing countries. It is more because of uncertainty over how the results will relate to discussions taking place in the context of the implementation of individual UN treaties, such as conventions on wetlands, biodiversity, etc. Indeed, in this respect, there seems to be a risk that the authors have not learned their lesson from the failure of the GBA report to excite policymakers back in 1995.

Practical steps needed

Some critics also fear that the MA may not make a significant impact outside the scientific community, as it contains too many messages. Others complain that the main report was too large-scale an exercise to be meaningful to national and local-level policymakers, and has been dominated by an excitement with data gathering, rather than placing the data in a real-world political context, which means working with officials in governments, etc., and listening to the needs of users.

It is now more than 30 years since Dennis Meadows and colleagues issued similar warnings about imminent global catastrophe in their book The Limits to Growth, published in 1972. At that time, the warning that the world was using up its 'natural capital' was based on the finite nature of physical resources. But the apocalyptic scenarios predicted failed to materialise, partly as a result of new resource finds (such as natural gas), partly because of steps that have since been taken to reduce the use of raw materials through a combination of pricing and — just as important — scientific and technological ingenuity.

The warnings in the MA report are very similar to those heard 30 years ago. The main difference is that, this time, what is held to be in finite supply is the ability of ecosystems to provide socially-valuable services. And, just as with the earlier warning, what is now needed is a set of policy measures designed to curtail ecosystem damage, linked to appropriate scientific and technological innovations that can chart a more environmentally-friendly way forward.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is at its most valuable when it sets out what some of these developments are likely to look like, placing them in either a national or regional context. The regional study of ecosystems services in Southern Africa, for example, one of a series of regional inputs into the main assessment, eschews sloganising for a pragmatic assessment of the links between ecosystems and human wellbeing in the region. It emphasises the need to ensure that the scales of environmental management need to be matched to ecosystem processes, and that the trade-offs — where promoting one benefit can lead to a decrease in other benefits — needs to be carefully handled.

In contrast, the impact of the assessment is most at risk when it falls into hubristic sloganising along the lines of "scientists have shown that…", with the rider that "governments must therefore …" . The IPCC may have been able to get away with this approach largely due to the unique nature of the issue that it addressed, namely the scientific basis of man-made climate change. For other disciplines to try to emulate this approach risks undermining efforts to ensure that poverty alleviation and ecosystem preservation go hand-in-hand.

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