What Will Life on Earth Be Like in 2050?

Scientists Look Ahead Five Decades In State-Of-The-Planet Report, Explore Ways To Solve Earth's Problems

Washington, D.C.

January 19, 2006


Megan Rabbitt

The number of extreme events, such as hurricanes and famine, affecting at least one million people will increase over the next 45 years if a certain scenario of world development plays out. Demand for water will increase enormously — between 30% and 85% — especially in Africa and Asia, by the year 2050. But human health may improve as public health measures advance vaccine development and lessen the impact of epidemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS. These are just a few of the many findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) published in a 4-volume set by Island Press and released today.

The MA is the product of a 4-year global research initiative, commissioned by the United Nations, in which 1,300 scientists from 95 nations explore the complex interactions between human well-being and the environment.

“The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment tells us that there is an inextricable link between the health of humans and the health of the planet. We can no longer ignore the enormous economic and social benefits, such as climate regulation and water purification, provided by nature’s fragile ecosystems,” said Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation. “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an extensively researched, scientifically grounded roadmap for why and how we should slow or reverse today’s ecosystem degradation and chart a path toward sustainable human development.”

The MA looks ahead 50 years from the year 2000 to paint four alternate pictures, or scenarios, of life on earth. Current estimates of 3 billion more people and a quadrupling of the world economy by 2050 show that our consumption of biological and physical resources will skyrocket putting much more pressure on ecosystems. But the scenarios demonstrate that the condition of ecosystems in the future could be significantly worse or better than in the present – depending on policy choices. For example, wise use of environmental technology, investing in education and health, and reducing poverty can reduce pressure on ecosystems.

“Despite what looks like steady global decline, this is a story of hope. The MA gives us a powerful way to explore the possible impacts of broad policy directions for life on Earth and tells us that changes in policy can make a difference,” said Dr. Stephen Carpenter, Professor of Limnology at the University of Wisconsin and one of the chief authors of the MA.

For example, MA scientists examine how the problem of excess nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico will change under each of the scenarios in order to identify the best approach to reducing the Gulf’s dead zone, caused by decades-old land use decisions. With more sophisticated management of the delta and main stem and better coordination between upstream and downstream, the dead zone would shrink, according to one scenario. Another scenario shows that a decrease in global trade would boost agricultural production in the U.S. and, combined with other factors, would mean that more nutrients would enter the Mississippi River and flow to the Gulf, widening the dead zone.

“Many of the policies identified by the MA as positive for both the environment and mankind are used somewhere today. So if we have the political will, we have the ability to implement them on a global scale,” added Carpenter.

The four scenarios are descriptions of plausible futures – based on changes in such factors as economic and population growth, climate change, and trade – told from the point of view of someone looking back from 2050 at what has happened in the world since 2000.

If certain assumptions play out by 2050, according to the MA, water will be more plentiful in nearly all regions because of climate change, but pressure on ecosystems to provide water to meet growing demand increases. Food security is likely to remain out of reach for many people, despite increasing food supply, but child malnutrition, while not eradicated, will likely drop over the coming decades.

By the end of the century, climate change may be the predominant driver of biodiversity loss and changes in ecosystem services globally. The Earth’s surface temperature is projected to increase 2.0 – 6.4 degrees Celsius bringing more incidents of floods and droughts. Sea levels will rise (50 – 70 centimeters by 2100). Biodiversity damage will grow worldwide as the rate of change in climate escalates.

“Ecosystem services have dramatically improved human wellbeing over the past centuries. People are better nourished and live longer and healthier lives than ever before, incomes have risen, and political institutions are more open,” stated Dr. Walter Reid, Director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and Professor with the Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. “But these gains have been achieved at a growing cost. It’s now time for us to measure the economic value of these services so we can make better decisions about our future.”

“Payments for ecosystem services can be an effective way to protect services that people rely on, such as clean water, while also protecting the environment,” said Dr. Prabhu Pingali of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “By placing a monetary value on these services, we will be smarter about using them while creating alternative sources of income for people, from farmers in the United States to tribes in developing countries.”

Three parts of the world may undergo faster changes in ecosystems than other regions and should be closely monitored by scientists, according to the MA. For example, Central Africa could see a rapid increase in demand for food and water which will intensify farming and raise the risk of water contamination from fertilizers and pesticides. Other hot spots are the Middle East, where rapid population growth could increase dependence on food imports, and South Asia where deforestation and industrial farming may “break” the region’s ecosystems.

The MA represents the first time scientists have looked at how the health of the environment contributes to human well-being and how policy decisions we make today shape the world of tomorrow. It is also the first time that scientists have examined changes – not just to nature – but to the benefits people receive from nature (identified as ‘ecosystem services’ in the MA), such as providing food, filtering air and water, controlling disease, building soil, pollinating crops and aesthetic and spiritual benefits.