Environment: we are not doing as well as we might have thought

In 2010 the European Environment Agency published its first assessment of “global megatrends”, intended to provide advice to policymakers on key issues that impact, and should be considered in. national and international policy. This year those megatrend assessments are being updated. Chapter 8, Growing demands on ecosystems, has recently been published. Gallon Environment Letter will publish a summary of all of the reports when the compendium is completed later this year.

The Growing demands on ecosystems update concludes that:

  • The continuing degradation of ecosystems across the world affects Europe [and, GallonDaily adds, North America] directly and indirectly. Diminishing global natural capital stocks may limit Europe’s ability to draw on natural resources elsewhere, thereby increasing pressures on European [and North American] ecosystems.
  • As the world’s poor are most directly reliant on functioning ecosystem services, widespread ecosystem degradation can negatively influence poverty and inequality, which may fuel conflict and instability in regions with fragile governance structures.
  • Failing to take advantage of cost-effective ecosystem-based solutions for climate change mitigation in other parts of the world may impose increased costs on Europe. Moreover, if ecological systems reach critical tipping points (for example Amazon forest dieback) it could result in unprecedented global environmental, social and economic implications.

Some of the findings of the EEA reported in this chapter include:

  • global population growth, increased earnings and shifting consumption patterns have resulted in steadily increasing human interventions into the natural environment. Humans harvest biomass to provide for many aspects of their existence, including essentials such as food, fuels, fibres and construction materials. The associated conversion of land has wide-ranging impacts on ecosystems and the services that they provide, including their ability to maintain a healthy, stable environment.
  • over the last 50 years, global per capita annual consumption of meat has almost doubled, increasing from around 23 kg to some 42 kg per person.
  • per capita economic output is projected to triple by 2050, bringing changes in consumption patterns including a shift to increased meat consumption, which is comparatively resource intensive.
  • pressures on terrestrial ecosystems may be aggravated by a rapid expansion in land allocated to cultivating bioenergy crops, as a means of reducing dependence on fossil fuels. In addition to potentially increasing food prices, biofuels generated from food crops such as grains, sugar cane and vegetable oils can also have significant ecological impacts. For example, they have been linked to deforestation and other land conversions at the expense of natural areas.
  • bioenergy crops can also contribute to freshwater scarcity. One study estimates that the global water footprint associated with cultivation of bioenergy crops (i.e. direct and indirect water use across the entire supply chain) will increase ten-fold in the period 2005–2030. Mitigating associated pressures on ecosystems will depend in part on the technological and commercial emergence of bioenergy produced from residues of agriculture and forestry that do not require additional land.
  • scenarios on how to meet the world’s food demand in 2050 suggest that even if water use is made much more efficient, the absolute agricultural intensification needed could lead to severe water stress in many world regions. This implies a threat to both human water security and to the functioning of ecosystems, including their capacity to provide essential services.
  • towards the mid-21st century, climate change, forestry and bioenergy are expected to become more important drivers of biodiversity loss.
  • two types of ecosystems have been identified as particularly threatened by depletion and loss of biodiversity: drylands and wetlands. Drylands host about 2 billion people, mostly in developing countries. Their destruction is continuing at an alarming rate, driven by the transformation of rangeland into cultivated cropland, resulting in problems such as water stress and soil degradation. The irreversible conversion of peatland and coastal wetlands (e.g. mangroves) for agriculture, aquaculture and human infrastructure is also likely to continue at very high rates.
  • unsustainable fishing strategies are likely to result in reduced wild catches, increasing demands for farmed fish. Such aquacultures are likely to put pressure on terrestrial ecosystems given the associated need for crop-based feed.
  • the benefits of protecting ecosystems and their associated services often far outweigh the costs. However, market systems seldom convey the full social and economic values of ecosystem services. As a result, market prices often incentivise unsustainable and socially undesirable decision-making about resource use and ecosystem management.
  • thresholds, amplifying feedbacks and time-lag effects leading to ‘tipping points’ are considered widespread and make the impacts of global change on biodiversity hard to predict and difficult to control once they begin. Some studies even suggest that a planetary-scale tipping point (i.e. radical changes in the global ecosystem as a whole) might be approaching.

The report notes that

it needs to be emphasised that the complexity of highly interconnected human and natural systems introduces considerable uncertainty into projections and forecasts. As much as anything, the assessment of megatrends aims to encourage readers to acknowledge this interdependence and uncertainty. In so doing, it may help point the way towards systems of planning and governance better adapted to meeting the challenges ahead.

The complete Chapter 8 of the EEA’s Global megatrend update is available at http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/global-megatrend-update-8

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