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Walter Reid is entering uncharted territory.

The acting science director for the United Nations’ recently launched Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has the unprecedented task of overseeing compilation of an evaluation of the world’s ecosystems.

Not just one marsh or watershed. Not one town, country, or even continent — but the whole world.

It may sound a tad esoteric, but Reid said the health of ecosystems is simply an indicator of the planet’s health and its ability to continue providing benefits, such as materials and services. Reid’s comments were made in Tokyo recently, where he was kicking off the daunting project, which is budgeted at $21 million and involves some 1,500 scientists around the world. “We have basically modified most of the world’s ecosystems already,” Reid said, explaining that between 40 percent and 50 percent of land areas have been altered by human activities.

“It is people who are constantly changing ecosystems and either increasing or decreasing their ability to produce food, clean water or other goods and services,” said Reid, an ecology expert.

The goals of the four-year assessment program, officially lunched Tuesday, are to better gauge the health of the world’s ecosystems as a whole and supply information to policymakers to facilitate scientifically sound decision-making. “To the extent possible, we will try to trace changes in ecosystems and their economic and social consequences for people,” Reid said. “The point is to conduct the assessment in a very holistic way to see how our actions are influencing ecosystems and in turn how ecosystems are influencing people.”

To this end, the assessment will bring a “goods and services” perspective to its evaluations of the impact of ecosystem changes. This is aimed at helping the layman appreciate what it means in terms of the economy, health and other topics. The report will eventually be formulated in an easy-to-understand summary for policymakers.

“The rationale here is that we have to address ecosystems from the perspective of things people care about — food, water, health. And if we want to make the assessment useful for decision-makers, we have to put it in the language they use to help them understand how decisions they make will affect the economy, water resources or public health,” Reid said.

In addition, Reid and others are counting on the assessment to break down barriers between environmental treaties by finding common ground and links, such as between the U.N. climate change treaty and that on biodiversity.

While in Japan, Reid met with Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, who is one of 40 members of a board that will oversee the assessment process.

“Our hope is that Japan will end up playing a very active role (in the assessment). It has expertise that can help with capacity building in Southeast Asia,” Reid said.

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