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Scientists identify top conservation threats and opportunities

20 December 2013, by Tamera Jones

Governments being forced to choose between preventing climate change or averting a financial crisis, carbon solar cells as an alternative source of energy and accelerated loss of rhinos and elephants are among 15 conservation issues scientists say may become significant in 2014.

White rhino

White rhino.

Other threats and opportunities include emerging snake fungal disease, exploitation of Antarctica by nations such as China and Russia, and using synthetic biology to resurrect extinct species.

The researchers say current stock market valuations of the fossil fuel industry are incompatible with government commitments to prevent global average temperature from rising more than 2°C.

Estimates suggest there are still coal, oil and gas reserves, valued at around $4 trillion, embedded in the ground globally. Oil companies invest around $650 million a year exploring these reserves.

But their value could drop dramatically if they aren't burned because emissions regulations come into force, potentially leading to a financial crisis.

'If investors and regulators do not address these trade-offs, governments may be forced to choose between preventing further climate change, risking a financial crisis, or preventing a financial crisis, risking further climate change,' write the authors of the study, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

'Our financial system is highly dependent on the fossil fuel industry – including pensions and savings – that everyone would be affected.'
Professor William Sutherland, University of Cambridge

'Our financial system is highly dependent on the fossil fuel industry – including pensions and savings – that everyone would be affected,' explains Professor William Sutherland of the University of Cambridge, who led this and previous horizon-scanning exercises.

Another issue scientists are concerned about is a huge, recent increase in ivory poaching, which is leading to a startling loss of elephants and rhinos across Africa and Asia. Such poaching has increased massively over the last decade, mainly because of the increasing price and demand for ivory in China.

Rhino horn still costs more than gold in Asia, and conservationists fear that growing wealth may hike up the price of rhino horn even more, further fuelling the trade.

On a more positive note, the researchers say that carbon solar cells could overtake silicon-based photovoltaic ones as a promising source of renewable energy. Mass production could lead to cheap cells that could be installed on land, in water or even be worn by people. Their construction is completely carbon-based, reducing any need for rare metals.

The topics are the result of an attempt to pinpoint conservation threats, opportunities and developments that aren't currently well recognised among scientists and need further research.

The idea behind the exercise is to identify issues early enough to reduce the likelihood they'll turn into big problems in the future, because we'll have time to take appropriate action.

'A number of environmental topics identified by horizon scans identified in our previous assessments, such as artificial life, synthetic meat and hydraulic fracturing are now widely discussed and better understood,' says Sutherland.

'Biofuels were once tipped to be a great green alternative to fossil fuels. But when rainforest started to be cleared to make way for palm plantations and other crops for use as biofuels we realised they weren't the answer after all,' he adds.

Sutherland says that had we spent time examining the potential threats posed by biofuels, we may have been better prepared for the consequences.

For this latest study, Sutherland gathered together scientists and environmentalists from the UK, Switzerland, New Zealand, the US, Sweden, Venezuela and the Netherlands to discuss 81 emerging issues.

To make it to the final list of 15, each issue had to be poorly known and likely to have substantial effects on the environment.

The full list of issues identified as a potential threat or opportunity

  • Response of financial markets to unburnable carbon
  • Extensive land loss in southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands
  • Carbon solar cells as alternative source of renewable energy
  • Rapid geographic expansion of macroalgal cultivation for biofuels
  • Redistribution of global temperature increases among ecosystems
  • High-frequency monitoring of land-cover change
  • Reaccelerated loss of wild rhinoceroses and elephants
  • Increasing scale of eradications of non-native mammals on islands
  • Self-sustaining genetic systems for control of non-native invasive species
  • Probiotic therapy for amphibians
  • Emerging snake fungal disease
  • Polyisobutylene as a marine toxicant
  • Exploitation of Antarctica
  • Expansion of ecosystem red listing
  • Resurrection of extinct species

William J. Sutherland, Rosalind Aveling, Thomas M. Brooks, Mick Clout, Lynn V. Dicks, Liz Fellman, Erica Fleishman, David W. Gibbons, Brandon Keim, Fiona Lickorish, Kathryn A. Monk, Diana Mortimer, Lloyd S. Peck, Jules Pretty, Johan Rockström, Jon Paul Rodríguez, Rebecca K. Smith, Mark D. Spalding, Femke H. Tonneijck, Andrew R. Watkinson, A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2014, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, published online 11 December 2013,

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