May 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Global environmental change is placing the future of humanity under considerable threat. As temperatures rise, glaciers melt and vegetation patterns change, there is an increasing need for us to put sustainable systems into place to ensure we minimise the long-term impact these changes will have on our way of life.

Our resilience to environmental change is greatly dependent upon ecosystem services. Ecosystems provide us with an enormity of regulating, provisioning and supporting services, without which we simply could not survive. These services define the health of our population, but the ability of ecosystems to continue providing these services is now at risk as a direct consequence of anthropogenic climate change.

Population Increase

As the global population grows, so does the demand for resources. Urban sprawl has destroyed the wealth and functions of our natural forests and wetlands, with industrial and consumer action wreaking havoc on the natural world. In 2001, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, called for by the United Nations, warned that human actions are putting such a strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations could no longer be taken for granted. Also, according to a later edition of this assessment, released in 2005, approximately 60% of ecosystems are being degraded or used in an unsustainable manner.

Ecosystem Disruption

Mismanagement of environmental systems will leave global populations at risk. No longer able to adequately provide their services, disrupted ecosystems will render us yet more vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental change, such as increases in mean global temperature. A warmer climate will result in a loss of biodiversity that will compromise crop pollination services, which in turn will affect food security. Disrupted water cycling and provision – a fundamental service – is a significant threat too; a drier environment will increase the demand for water to a level higher than some ecosystems will be able to replenish it. It is estimated thatby 2030, the global demand for water will exceed itssupply by 40%.

Together, food scarcities, coastal changes andextreme weather conditions will drive populationsaway from regions with inadequate service systemsto those richer in provisions. The United Nations estimates that 200 million people could be displacedas a result of climate impacts by 2050. Surges inpopulation density in urban areas will send epidemic and mortality levels soaring, whilst exacerbatingthe problems already faced in vulnerable, povertystricken communities.

Where do we go from here? Predicting the impactof environmental change on ecosystem services remains a challenge, since ecosystems are often nonlinear and unpredictable. An intact natural environment is crucial for enabling us to cope with, andrecover from, environmental change. The sooner weacknowledge this truth, the more readily we can determine our fate in the face of global environmentalchange.

Ecosystem services are our life support. Humaninduced environmental change is affecting the ability of ecosystems to perform these services. This inturn renders us more vulnerable to the effects of environmental changes, such as global warming.