A team of 24 experts – including researchers, practitioners and journalists – have released the results of their seventh annual conservation horizon scanning exercise in the January 2016 issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
Fauna & Flora International’s Dr Abigail Entwistle was among the authors of this year’s horizon scan, which identifies issues that could have significant effects on global conservation in the near future.
This annual process aims to increase awareness and encourage policy makers and researchers to prepare for emerging environmental threats and opportunities.
Among the 15 issues identified by the team were nine potential environmental threats which ranged from artificial oceanic islands and electric pulse trawling to artificial superintelligence. Alongside these threats, the team also identified six opportunities for global biodiversity conservation, including technological advances.
1. The development of artificial superintelligence could have substantial and unexpected effects.
2. The growing use of electric pulse trawl fishing, for which there is poor regulation and limited understanding of the ecological effects.
3. Though now emerging as a viable renewable energy source, the required infrastructure and salinity fluctuations associated with osmotic power may have adverse biodiversity impacts.
4. Using managed bees to deliver bacteria, viruses or fungi to flowers of agricultural plants (as a way of protecting crops from pests) may harm wild bees and other insects that visit the same flowers.
5. With fish stocks expected to expand into the central Arctic Ocean (due to climate change) the unregulated nature of fisheries in this area could pose a risk of overfishing.
6. The increasing number of artificial oceanic islands has contributed to the decline in coral cover (which in turn increases the likelihood of these islands collapsing during severe weather).
7. The rising use of testosterone supplements by men is likely to increase concentrations of this hormone in natural water bodies.
8. The release of engineered nanoparticles into the natural environment during product manufacture, use and disposal may have unknown effects on terrestrial biodiversity.
9. Invasive species can threaten native biodiversity (but may also act as reservoirs of genetic diversity).
10. Advances in satellite technology that allow us to identify and track vessels at sea also offer opportunities to better protect the environment.
11. Passive acoustic monitoring can be used to detect illegal activity, such as logging and hunting.
12. Advances in 3D printing offers an avenue for creating synthesised body parts of endangered animals (such as rhino horn), which has been proposed as a way to reduce pressure on wild rhinos. However, some have questioned whether this will only increase the demand for real horn.
Other substantial opportunities:
13. The rise of renewable energy due to technological advancements and changing energy consumption patterns.
14. The adoption of ecological principles in China may have positive effects on environmental protection in a country that has high levels of air and soil pollution.
15. Artificial glaciers have been created to increase water supply for agricultural irrigation in response to climate change.
Narrowing down the search
The team narrowed their search by considering how well known an issue was, the probability of an issue becoming a major concern, the pace at which it could happen and the effects this could have.
In the past, horizon scans have identified environmental issues such as: climate change, introduction of toxic substances, energy generation and unsustainable food production.
“Horizon scanning provides a valuable chance to stand back and look ahead to where new threats and opportunities may emerge,” says Dr Entwistle. “This allows us to take such issues into account in our planning, and be more prepared to deal with them if and when they do impact our work.”
“FFI has previously responded to outcomes of these annual horizon scans – which often complement other pioneering work we are involved in, such as tackling marine microplastic pollution and using mobile-sensing technology.”