In matters relating to environmental one repeatedly comes across the word eco-system which does not quite convey its meaning clearly to many. While the Planet Earth is full of ecosystems of various kinds many wouldn’t know what precisely they are and how do they affect us. De-mystification of the word “eco-system” would go a long way to enhance understanding of our environment so as to be able to foster its conservation.
Simply stated, an eco-system, as defined by Wikipedia, is a community of living organisms and non-living components such as air, water and “mineral” soil. It can also be defined as a network of interactions among organisms or between organisms and their environment.
An eco-system can be of any size but it has to have a limited specific space. Some scientists say that the entire planet is one huge eco-system. That may well be true but the fact is that the earth is full of eco-systems of varying kinds and varying sizes, of varying organisms interacting with varying physical components which, in turn, may be interacting with each other or various organisms in their own respective ways.
Questions have been asked why eco-systems are important for us, humans. They are important because we live in various eco-systems and avail of the services rendered by them without being even conscious of that. Eco-systems are delicately balanced phenomena that cannot suffer any imbalances in the mix of their constituents. If the constituents undergo changes of any kind – from their size to intensity – the ecosystems tend to degrade and become harmful to its constituents, including us.
The biggest and the most important example of imbalance in our eco-system is climate change wrought by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. This change has been brought about by pumping of greenhouse gases over decades into the atmosphere by burning of fossil fuels in factories, automobiles, ships and aeroplanes, etc. Carbon in the atmosphere has risen beyond what it could take and took the form of a greenhouse over the earth trapping the heat radiated by it towards space. This has given rise to global warming (a warming that mimics warming in a greenhouse) that has set off chain reactions harmful to us like climate change adversely impacting our habitat, our water resources, agriculture, our climate and bio-diversity and so on.
Scientists have estimated that were the earth’s temperature to rise by 2 degrees Celsius above the temperature that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution as a consequence of global warming it would be almost impossible to save the earth as we know it. This assumption (yes, for the present it is only an assumption) is born out of a general consensus but many have said the 2 degrees Celsius, in fact, was determined by happenstance. Nonetheless, a sliver of opportunity is, seemingly, still available to prevent the earth from further heating as currently the temperature is hovering around 1 degree Celsius higher than what prevailed in pre-Industrial era.
The United Nations Environment Programme has recently emphasised the way eco-systems are helping humanity by buffering it against the worst impacts of global warming. According to the groundbreaking Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity published last year, the UNEP chief Achim Seiner said the “world’s bio-diversiity and eco-systems might seem abstract and remote to many people but there is nothing abstract about their role in economics and in the lives of billions of people.” Further, he went on to say, “the range of benefits generated by these ecosystems and the biodiversity underpinning them are all too often invisible and mainly undervalued by those in charge of national economies and international development support,”
According to the UNEP, continued loss of animal and plant species and eco-systems soch as forests is causing poverty as well as environmental damage. Steiner went on to reiterate the economic value of corals and forest eco-systems. According to the Economics of Eco-systems and Biodiversity study coral reefs generate up to $189,000 per hectare in coastal defense and even more in fisheries and tourism revenues while continued deforestation and forest degradation is costing $2 to 4 trillion a year.
Steiner said one-fifth of the coral reefs were already degraded or were at the risk of collapse due to over-fishing, pollution and coastal developments. The most exotic example is the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef along the eastern coast of Australia. The reasons for its degradation are classical like global warming, over-fishing, pollution and, of course, human interference. Closer home, a report in Down to Earth recently said the people of Lakshadweep could well be the first environmental refugees as the corals around it have started bleaching owing to ocean warming. It is being said that the Indian Ocean waters have never been so warm. Warming of the globe is being credited for this unlikely aberration which might make the locals to run for their lives.
Stiener goes on to say that it is similar story in respect of all the planet’s nature-based resources – from forest to freshwaters to mountains and soils. We all know how in India the eco-systems of fresh waters, forests, grasslands, mountainous and coastal regions of the country have been damaged over the last few decades.
The process goes on virtually everywhere without any let or hindrance giving rise to a changing climate, violent weather, rising temperatures, a general warming of the earth that is speeding the process of melting of polar ice sheets severely threatening the survival of that symbol of polar eco-system – the polar bear.
The UNEP is going to decide shortly about establishment of a platform similar to Inter-governmental on Climate Change and Biodiversity for dealing with degrading eco-systems. The proposed International Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) would use the latest science to help drive forward policy recommendations. Steiner hopes that the new body, apart from demystifying the terms biodiversity and eco-systems, will start convincing countries to include the value of natural capital in their national accounts and economic decisions.
Such a strategy is urgently called for in this country as all of our natural assets are being depleted.