Guest Article #5

An Irreversible Truth

An oft forgotten yet irreversible truth is that the prosperity and wellbeing of humanity is built entirely on the foundation of a planet comprising an array of finely balanced and interdependent ecosystems. Without the vital supporting, regulating, provisioning and cultural services provided by the planet's biodiversity and myriad ecosystems, humanity, in all its wonder and diversity, would effectively collapse. Similar to the ‘vital signs' a medical practitioner checks when a patient first arrives at a hospital or medical centre, these ‘vital' ecosystem services must be addressed and stabilized before proceeding to other concerns or improvements.

Sadly, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlighted that many ecosystem services are threatened or in decline. Indeed, the continued destruction of natural habitat, loss of biodiversity and increased pollution is tantamount to throwing away the family silver (inheritance) and robbing future generations of the wealth-producing assets humanity has long taken for granted. Compounding the severity of this slow-moving global disaster is the reality that the decline in ecosystem services disproportionally affects the world's poor and impedes sustainable development. In developing countries, it significantly impedes the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In response to this ongoing crisis, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in its role as an advocate, educator, catalyst and facilitator of the wise use of the planet's natural assets for sustainable development, has developed a comprehensive Ecosystem Management Programme (http://www.unep.org/ecosystemmanagement/). This Programme promotes fundamental reforms at local, national and regional scales to manage ecosystems, from the mountains to the seas, for human wellbeing. Specifically, UNEP is seeking to assist countries to reverse the trend of decline by adopting an ecosystem approach. The ecosystem approach calls for the holistic management of land, water, sea and living resources to promote their conservation and sustainable use. This is in contrast to sectoral responses, such as water, agriculture and forests, in which each sector often is addressed independently, rather than as a unit of functionally interdependent ecosystems. The ecosystem approach emphasises the integration of improved valuation of ecosystem services in decision making processes, incorporates humans as a fundamental component of ecosystems, and emphasizes the need for equitable access to ecosystem services.

UNEP's Ecosystem Management Programme encourages governments to shift from sectorally defined management units to units defined in ecological terms and to analyse the natural, social and economic impacts and stressors on these units. It emphasizes collaborative decision‑making by all relevant stakeholders and users that may, and often do, have different values, conflicting interests and varying capacities to understand and manage ecological systems.

Importantly, UNEP's Ecosystem Management Programme recognises the central role played by biodiversity in the provision of ecosystem services, since resilience of an ecosystem is related to the biological diversity in the system and the capacity to maintain ecosystem processes.  Most ecosystem processes and the services they provide are controlled by, or are the result of, biodiversity. Furthermore, in order to identify entry points for effective interventions, the Programme seeks to understand which direct drivers (e.g. land‑use change, deforestation, invasive species) and which indirect – and more diffuse – drivers (e.g. demography, policy options) are affecting biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and how modifying the delivery of ecosystem services can directly affect the various constituents of human wellbeing.

Recognising the underpinning or foundational nature of biodiversity and ecosystem services to national development and prosperity, UNEP is increasingly seeking to mainstream ecosystem approaches by working with central ministries where major economic decisions are made, such as ministries of planning, finance and treasury, in addition to ministries of environment and natural resource management. UNEP is assisting countries to develop appropriate valuation methodologies to account for ecosystem services and get an overall picture of how these services contribute, amongst other things, to the countries' gross domestic product (GDP). This understanding will encourage countries to protect vital ecosystems which provide services for national development and poverty alleviation initiatives.

In short, the ecosystem approach recognises that biodiversity and ecosystem services provide many benefits for humanity, many of which we take for granted and undervalue. We must better understand and value these services, while exploring new and innovative ways to reduce, even remove, the drivers that threaten them. It is critical for both present and future generations that we polish the family silver, not throw it away.