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ICSU launches new program to understand the human impact on Earth's life-support systems

This release is available in French.

Maputo, MozambiqueThe global scientific community has approved a new international research programme designed to understand the relationship between humans and the ecosystems that provide essential life-supporting services. The decision was made today at the General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and should help provide the scientific knowledge needed to ensure the sustainable use of our valuable ecosystems.

Ecosystems provide benefits essential for life on Earth (food, water shelter, habitat, recovery of nutrients, soil formation and retention) as well as cultural and recreational services (spiritual, aesthetic, educational and eco-tourism). In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) reported that, because of human actions, more than 60% of ecosystem services were degraded or being used unsustainably.

'Climate change, pollution, changes in land-use, and invasive species, coupled with population growth, increased consumption, globalization and urbanization, have put enormous pressure on the environment to provide the services that we need,' said Hal Mooney of the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University in California and chair of the expert group recommending the new programme.

'Unless we do something now, the tide of destruction will continue, causing catastrophic loss of biodiversity, widespread poverty and economic crisis.'

While the MA provided a baseline of where society is at in relation to its use of the resources that support us all, there is an enormous amount of research that still needs to be done, particularly in the knowledge areas that were severely lacking when the MA was being carried out.

ICSUalong with UNESCO and the United Nations Universityhas taken the lead on this and will establish 'Ecosystem Change and Human Well-being', a major international programme to help fill some of those knowledge gaps. But this research needs to be done now for it to be part of a second MA, if it were to take place in the next 5-7 years.

Mooney said, 'This programme will engage people outside of the science to set the agenda and use a participatory approach to decide on priorities. That way this programme will be well positioned to answer the policy relevant questions so that changes can be made before it's too late'.

This programme is important not just to feed into an assessment but also because the science itself is important. It links both natural and social sciences with ecosystem services and integrates the three pillars of sustainable developmentenvironment, economic and social.

'Taking an ecosystem services-based approach makes it clear that alleviating poverty and protecting the environment are parts of the same human development agenda, not adversaries', said Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa.

'Developing countries, especially those in Africa, have a choice on how they raise the overall wealth of their people: once-off by destroying their abundant natural capital, or sustainably by responsible use.'


Contact: Jacinta Legg
International Council for Science

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