Scanning the horizon
13 August 2010
Many of our current environmental problems could have been avoided with a little forethought. And too often, we get to grips with problems only after they've become serious. Bill Sutherland plans to change this. He tells Tom Marshall how.
When conservation scientists meet, they tend to focus on practical problems in the environment right now, and what we could do about them. But when a group of experts from conservation organisations, universities and governments all over the world and from a range of disciplines met in Cambridge late last year, they weren't talking about anything so concrete.
Instead, they were trying to imagine what the next big problems and opportunities might be. By the end of the meeting they had settled on 15 issues that they think we should keep an eye on. They range from the possible side-effects of releasing particles into the upper atmosphere to combat climate change to what effect tiny particles of germ-killing silver could have when they get into the sewage system.
The idea isn't to predict the future, but to highlight areas that may become important in the coming years. Not all of them will. But if even a few do, Bill Sutherland, who organised the event, hopes thinking about them ahead of time will mean we're better prepared to deal with them before they get out of hand.
A professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University, Sutherland's previous projects include collaborating with UK and global policy-makers to identify the key research questions that need answers, and developing evidence-based conservation (see Planet Earth Autumn 2008, pp28-9). But identifying the big risks at the moment is a long way from envisaging what things could be like in a decade's time.
Sutherland thinks the scientific community needs to spend more time thinking about a wide range of future issues in order to be sensibly prepared. 'It has struck me for some time that we're not looking forward sufficiently,' he says. 'This means we get taken by surprise by problems we really should have foreseen. An example is biofuels, which were enthusiastically adopted without carefully considering the consequences.'
The idea behind biofuels involves growing plants like oil palms as an energy source. It was championed around the middle of the last decade as a way to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. But Sutherland says the conservation and ecological communities weren't properly prepared to predict their effects.
Aggressive targets for increasing biofuel use have meant large swathes of already-vulnerable ecosystems like tropical rainforests have been destroyed to make way for energy crop plantations. This ecological havoc may outweigh any benefit from burning fewer fossil fuels. This consequence was unintended, but hardly unforeseeable. 'We failed to anticipate the social, economic, climate change and ecological consequences of actively promoting biofuels,' Sutherland explains.
'We often only start thinking seriously about environmental consequences when there's already a problem, and by then it's much harder to do something about it,' he adds. 'As it is, we've adopted biofuels widely and now we're trying to catch up on the basic research. This is the wrong way round!'
As well as choosing the issues to focus on, the group also discussed how policy-makers and conservationists could respond. In some cases action may be needed right now; in others, all that's called for at the moment is research to establish whether the risks are real, how serious they are and how we could deal with them. In yet other situations it may be sensible just to wait and see how they develop.
Sutherland and the other participants in the exercise presented their results to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Hilary Benn just hours after the end of the workshop - policy-maker engagement in action!
'Some of the issues he was already familiar with, but many he'd never heard of,' Sutherland says. 'This was exactly what we'd been aiming for - a list of issues that are not generally known to most academics and policy-makers. We'll certainly have missed some things, but we hope this kind of exercise will help alert policy-makers and conservation practitioners to issues they might otherwise miss, and we plan to repeat this exercise annually.'
The fifteen issues
- Microplastic pollution: what could tiny plastic particles do to the environment?
- Stratospheric aerosols: some scientists want to shoot fine particles into the upper atmosphere to scatter sunlight and slow global warming. But there could be unexpected consequences.
- Artificial life: designing our own microbes could let us make chemical compounds on demand, or engineer our own life forms for any number of other purposes. But the new era of bespoke life will also carry profound risks.
- Nanosilver in waste water: tiny silver particles designed to kill bacteria are one of nanotechnology's first mass-market applications. But could they harm natural microbial communities?
- Biochar: turning woody biomass into charcoal could let us harvest its energy while keeping its carbon content in solid form, to be returned to the soil and stored there for long periods. But more work is needed on what effects it could have once it's there.
- Mobile-sensing technologies: will mobile sensors and apps become a vital tool for monitoring environmental change?
- Deoxygenation of the oceans: global warming tampers with ocean chemistry, and the amount of dissolved oxygen is falling. How could this affect marine ecosystems that are already under pressure from overfishing, ocean acidification and changing temperatures?
- Changes in denitrifying bacteria: is global warming affecting the behaviour of bacteria specialised in dealing with nitrogen?
- High-latitude volcanism: ice sheets cover many volcanoes near the poles. As they retreat, will the volcanoes get more active? And could this itself accelerate climate change?
- Synthetic meat: growing meat in a petri-dish could solve many problems - but what are the economic, ethical and environmental implications?
- Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish are causing havoc in the Caribbean, but could exploiting them for food ultimately benefit endangered edible fish species?
- Trans-Arctic dispersal and colonisation: Arctic ice separates the Atlantic from the Pacific - what if it melts?
- Large-scale international land acquisitions: countries are buying farmland abroad to secure their food supplies in future. What will the cost be for local environments and economies?
- Assisted colonisation: could moving plants and animals to new, more suitable habitats help them cope with climate change? Or is this tantamount to 'ecological roulette'?
- Impact of REDD: The UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries programme (REDD) aims to cut carbon emissions from deforestation. But some fear it could protect forests at the expense of other habitats like savannahs and wetlands.
Bill Sutherland is Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.
Sutherland et al, A horizon scan of global conservation issues in 2010, Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
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