What are the biggest emerging opportunities and threats the coming year holds for efforts to conserve biodiversity? Nearly two dozen scientists, conservation professionals and future scanners recently came together to answer that question as part of an annual “horizon scan” led by Cambridge University conservation biologist William Sutherland.
The group narrowed a list of 89 issues to 15 emerging or anticipated trends that have a strong potential to benefit or harm living things but are not yet on the radar for most conservationists. Here are their top picks, published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
Cellulose, for better and worse
Cellulose, one of the main components of wood, is proving to be remarkably useful when broken into nano-sized bits. As inventors find new uses for the versatile material, demand is growing a hefty 18% per year. The use of nanocellulose for packaging and construction can help remove carbon dioxide, a primary contributor to climate change, from the atmosphere, and reduce demand for environment-harming plastics. But it could also increase pressure to turn diverse forests into plantations bereft of biodiversity, and otherwise disrupt habitat.
Forests as fuel
The European Union has adopted a directive classifying wood as a renewable energy source and has plans to dramatically increase renewables’ share of the energy mix by 2030. Ironically, these moves are spurring actions that are seen as detrimental from both climate change and biodiversity perspectives: The import of wood into the EU from countries such as the US and Canada has increased in recent years and there are concerns for disruption of forest habitat in Europe as well. A lawsuit is challenging the classification but the problem could worsen if countries outside the EU follow suit.
Better buds for bees?
Bees and other pollinators have been in big trouble lately as changing land use and perils such as pesticides and disease decimate their populations. Recent research in the US has shown that pollen of sunflowers and relatives, though not as nutritionally valuable as pollen from other plants, appears to reduce the severity of a gut infection that decreases reproductive success in bumblebees. If this research were to lead to mass plantings of sunflowers, it could adversely affect other wild bees that depend on more nutritious plants or on host-parasite interactions to thrive.
The Asian long-horned tick arrived in the US in 2017, bringing a most unwelcome guest: a bacterium that kills cattle. The tick tolerates a wide range of conditions and has potential to spread along the coasts of North America as well as into Central and South America, carrying its deadly companion along with it. This duo is likely to catalyse changes in land use as cattle growers adjust their operations. Because the tick has been known to infest mammals and birds, there is concern it may also harm wildlife as it spreads.
Large “forests” of kelp, a type of brown algae, grow along coastlines around the world, protecting shores from erosion and sheltering commercially important fish and other ocean life. Despite their reputation for enduring environmental stress, many of these kelp forests have been declining in recent years, possibly due to rising ocean temperatures, pollution, harvesting and non-native species. Further declines could disrupt ocean ecosystems and result in economically impactful losses of the billions of dollars worth of services they provide to humans.
Antarctic ice: a dark horse
It’s well known that a warming atmosphere is eating away at ice surrounding both of our planet’s poles. What’s less common knowledge, and only gradually being understood by scientists, is how the ozone hole over the Antarctic affects this. The hole in Earth’s ozone layer has been shrinking due to reduced emissions of pollutants that cause it to enlarge. This alteration could contribute to changes in wind and other weather patterns over the south pole. The changing weather in turn is likely to cause more Antarctic ice to melt, exacerbating global sea-level rise and further threatening coastal communities and habitat.
Mini hydro meets river ecology
Small hydropower dams are becoming increasingly popular for powering local communities in Asia and elsewhere. Though they can have less land use impact than megadams, they still disrupt river flow and sediment movement and so can alter habitat in ways that affect animals and plants that inhabit rivers and streams. With more than 80,000 such dams in existence and a development push for more, there is a need for a better understanding of potential ecological impacts and what we can do to minimise harm to fish and other living things.
Ocean fish farming can produce large amounts of food but it takes a lot of water and can pollute the environment with nutrients and other chemicals. One approach being explored to reduce adverse impacts is the use of recirculating aquaculture systems, which reduce water demand by 97%–99%. Limiting factors for this approach are the cost, as well as concerns about the downsides such as feed sourcing and energy use. If these factors are addressed, farms could help boost ocean fish supply in a more sustainable manner than conventional approaches.
As conventional insecticides such as pyrethroids become less effective at killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes due to the evolution of resistance, scientists are searching for innovative alternatives. One recently developed is a mosquito-infecting fungus that has been genetically engineered to produce a toxin found in spider venom. This biological control could benefit biodiversity by working synergistically with, and so reducing the use of, conventional insecticides. However, it could also cause problems by affecting other organisms besides malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Among the latest advances in assisted reproduction is the development of an artificial “biobag” womb that can be used to carry developing foetuses through to full term. Although still in its early stages, such a device could potentially be used to increase reproductive capacity of endangered mammals in instances where the availability of females to gestate the next generation is a limiting factor to recovery. Yet to be explored are possible behavioural and immune system implications and other unintended consequences of bypassing the mother’s natural accommodations.
Asian cures, biodiversity ills
Traditional Asian medicine is flying high these days with inclusion in the World Health Assembly’s International Classification of Diseases in early 2019, a growing market push by the Chinese government, and booming sales in countries involved in China’s Belt and Road initiative. Whether or not that’s good for human health, implications for endangered species are a concern because some treatments require harvesting threatened species. Not only that but the Belt and Road development could enhance access to hard-to-reach sources of such species, further increasing opportunities to harvest high-demand plants and animals.
The distributed tracking technology known as blockchain is finding an increasingly broad array of applications, including managing energy and other natural resources. With no universal standards or oversight, however, it opens to door to disconcerting applications such as a Germany-based demonstration in which a forest was essentially empowered to sell its own timber. The lack of convention and regulation could create impacts on biodiversity outside of existing political and regulatory structures. At the same time, the technology could be used to improve governance of natural resources, protect indigenous land rights and more.
Is harming the environment a crime? Under the Rome Statute, the international criminal court can hold individuals and governments responsible for destroying natural resources in certain situations. Efforts are under way, however, to extend the definition of prosecutable crime beyond the limits of the statute to include ecocide – harm to the environment that affect the ability of those who live there to peaceably coexist with it. Several initiatives are moving toward this goal, with potential for making common activities such as producing greenhouse gases and destroying habitat prosecutable under international law.
Assuaging the impacts of war
The United Nations’ International Law Commission recently adopted a set of draft principles aimed at protecting the environment in conflict situations. The principles not only require warring parties to prevent environmental damage but also call for including environmental restoration in the peace negotiations and repairing damage after conflicts end. With the ubiquity and damage potential of modern wars, these principles could offer a tremendous conservation benefits worldwide.
From disseminating new research to tracking the movement of invasive species and sharing threats with citizens, much of the business of biodiversity depends on access to the internet. But in 2018 the US repealed net neutrality rules that required internet service providers to give equal access to all websites. If this change spreads to other jurisdictions and results in preferential access for some clients, it could dramatically alter – for better or worse – the conservation community’s ability to advocate for and protect species around the world.