Scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities

Pre-empting the future of global conservation

Managed bees as vectors - an emerging topic for 2016.

Managed bees as vectors – an issue highlighted this year as something that could affect global conservation.

For the past eight years or so, a group of people from around the world have been convening in Madingley Hall at Cambridge University to consider what the future might look like for global conservation. The 20 or so participants include professional horizon scanners, a journalist, and experts from a wide range of disciplines relevant to conservation science (such as ecology, biosecurity, public health, social science and technology studies).

The annual workshop is the culmination of three months of collating new and emerging issues that participants and their networks believe will become important for the environment in the foreseeable future. Participants locate these issues by regularly scanning the media, various websites, published and grey literature, conferences and by simply talking to friends, family and colleagues. Importantly, they are monitoring information from a host of different domains, from economics to geopolitics to medicine, looking for any flashes in the pan that could conceivably affect global conservation.

The ‘issues’ that are identified and discussed tend to come in two forms: sometimes they are novel or emerging threats, such as the environmental consequences of increasing milk consumption in Asia, or increasing pharmaceutical discharges with aging populations. But they also come in the form of new opportunities for conservation, for example, a new probiotic therapy for treating the deadly chytrid fungus in amphibians, or high frequency monitoring of land cover change with advances in remote sensing.

In 2014, while working on a postdoc for NERP, I was invited by Professor Bill Sutherland to contribute to one of their annual horizon scans. It led to some fascinating discussion and a fast-tracked publication in Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Sutherland et al 2015). I was very excited to be invited back in 2015.

Basically, the process is this. Each of the participants submits short summaries of up to five issues that they think are ‘on the horizon’ for global conservation. Altogether, 89 issues were submitted. Each participant reads the issue summaries and privately scores each of the 89 issues from 1-1000, according to novelty and potential impact.

A shortlist of the top scoring 34 issues is then circulated, and participants have the opportunity to ‘save’ any issues that didn’t make the cut. Every member of the group is assigned 3-4 issues from the shortlist for which they act as ‘cynics’—so called because their job is to find holes in the topic. In researching the topic, they might ask themselves questions like: is this issue genuinely new, or is it just a repackaging of something we’ve seen before? Is it based on credible research? Is it really plausible that the issue will unfold in the not-too-distant future, and have genuine implications for the environment?

By the time the workshop comes around, everyone is armed with their knowledge and insights, and every issue on the shortlist is systematically dismantled by the full group. In light of this workshop discussion, everyone rescores the shortlist, and a final list of the top 15 issues rises from the ashes!

These 15 issues are published in the annual TREE paper.

So, what are the issues that made the final list for 2015? Here’s a short summary. (Note that a new list of issues has been published at the beginning of 2016, see below on scanning the horizon in 2016.)

1. Compounds that disrupt the capacity of insects to sense airborne compounds

A new insect repellent (VUAA1) activates all of an insect’s olfactory receptors simultaneously, making it highly challenging for insects to detect food sources. This new class of compounds is highly effective but indiscriminate, potentially affecting non-target species.

2. Bioplastics from waste

Bioplastics produced by bacteria that feed on carbon dioxide and methane have recently been developed. This offers an alternative to petrochemical-based plastics, and also to bioplastics derived from plant-based feedstocks.

3. Algae as a replacement for palm oil

Increased pressure to move away from unsustainably produced palm oil has led to the exploration of genetically modified substitute oils. There has been recent interest in oils produced by algae. The algae are grown in a bioreactor and pressed to produce oil that can be used in cosmetics, foods, and detergents.

4. Adoption of electric vehicles

The market for electric vehicles has been historically constrained by high purchase prices, limited range, long recharging time, and limited recharging infrastructure. These constraints are fast being overcome.

5. Legalisation of recreational drugs

Increased legalisation of recreational drugs could have flow-on effects for the environment. For example, legalisation of cocaine could reduce drug cartel influence and increase access to tropical forests, with implications for citizens, governments and logging.

6. Underground gasification of coal

This new approach for harvesting coal through underground gasification enables access to previously inaccessible coal deposits, potentially extending the lifetime of global coal reserves by several hundred years. Techniques for capture and storage of carbon dioxide produced by the process are being developed.

7. Pharmaceutical-induced loss of aquatic biofilms

The algal, bacterial, and fungal films that cover rocks in streams provide food for invertebrates and fish, and contribute to water quality. But they are highly sensitive to toxicants. The composition and function of biofilms is at risk with the increase of pharmaceuticals in waterway.

8. Sustainable intensification of high-yielding agriculture

This refers to the goal of intensifying food production in existing agricultural areas while reducing overall environmental impact. Rather than focusing on particular methods of agricultural production, sustainable intensification policies focus on profitable business models that account for environmental and social side effects.

9. Increases in coral disease in the Indo-Pacific

Recent research suggests an increase in the extent, frequency, and effects of coral disease outbreaks in the Indo-Pacific region. Outbreaks are exacerbated by changes in water quality, disturbance and climate, potentially leading to serious changes in coral reef structure.

10. Effects on krill of marked decline in Antarctic sea ice

Since krill are dependent on epontic algae that grow in sea ice, reduced extent of winter sea ice will likely reduce krill densities the following summer. The largest krill populations occur in areas where sea ice extent has declined most markedly.

11. Novel coastal ecosystems associated with ice retreat

Glacial and sea ice retreat is revealing new areas of permanently ice-free intertidal seabeds and open water. These areas could be colonised by species that have been virtually absent from Antarctica since about 400,000 years before present.

12. Increasing the legal status of non-human species

Increased awareness of animal consciousness and welfare has led to greater protections for them, with flow-on effects being two-fold. First, it could lead to more objections to culling of invasive species for ecological purposes, and second, it may increase engagement in conservation.

13. Impact investing

A new class of financial instruments aims to benefit both the environment and the financial sector by adding conservation projects to the investment portfolio. Financial returns may come from carbon credits, ecosystem service valuations, agriculture, tourism and other revenue generating activities.

14. Reproducibility in environmental science

Many disciplines, including psychology, biomedicine, economics, political science, and chemistry, have come under increasing media scrutiny due to their difficulty replicating experimental results. This has reduced the perceived credibility of those disciplines. If a similar criticism is levelled at environmental science, it could undermine efforts to apply the science to environmental policy and practice.

15. Investor-state dispute settlements in free trade

The two largest trade agreements in history are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (under ongoing negotiations between the US and the EU) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (signed in February 2016 after 7 years of negotiations between US, Canada, Australia and several other Asia Pacific nations). Both agreements include provisions for investor-state dispute settlement. Under certain conditions, these provisions allow foreign investors to initiate claims against a government for profits lost due to legal or regulatory changes, including those concerning the environment or public health.

More info: Bonnie Wintle

*Bonnie Wintle is a former Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA), University of Melbourne, and has recently moved to the University of Cambridge to take up a postdoc with the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). Her participation in the 2014 horizon scanning workshop (for 2015) was made possible with the help of a CEED Early Career Travel Fellowship.

Sutherland WJ, M Clout, M Depledge, LV Dicks, J Dinsdale, AC Entwistle, E Fleishman, DW Gibbons, B Keim, FA Lickorish, KA Monk, N Ockendon, LS Peck, J Pretty, J Rockström, MD Spalding, FH Tonneijck & BC Wintle (2015). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2015. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 30: 17–24.

Scanning the horizon in 2016

Trends in Ecology and Evolution recently published the 2016 list (Sutherland et al 2016) and here’s what’s on it. This story is open access so anyone can download this issue (for free) if you want to find out why these issues are considered significant.

  1. Artificial Superintelligence
  2. Changing Costs of Energy Storage and Consumption Models
  3. Ecological Civilization Policies in China
  4. Electric Pulse Trawling
  5. Osmotic Power
  6. Managed Bees as Vectors
  7. Unregulated Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean Threaten Expanding Fish Stocks
  8. Increasing Extent of Construction of Artificial Oceanic Islands
  9. Increasing Aquatic Concentrations of Testosterone
  10. Effects of Engineered Nanoparticles on Terrestrial Ecosystems
  11. Satellite Access to Shipborne Automatic Identification Systems
  12. Passive Acoustic Monitoring to Prevent Illegal Activity
  13. Synthetic Body Parts of Endangered Animals
  14. Artificial Glaciers to Regulate Irrigation
  15. Invasive Species as Reservoirs of Genetic Diversity


Sutherland WJ, S Broad, J Caine, M Clout, LV Dicks, H Doran, AC Entwistle, E Fleishman, DW Gibbons, B Keim, B LeAnstey, FA Lickorish, P Markillie, KA Monk, D Mortimer, N Ockendon, JW Pearce-Higgins, LS Peck, J Pretty, J Rockström, MD Spalding, FH Tonneijck, BC Wintle and KE Wright (2016). A Horizon Scan of Global Conservation Issues for 2016. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 31: 44-53.

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