There requires a greater emphasis on forecasting and critical evaluation, and less dawdling on existing, well studied issues: in summary, this is the main recommendation made by 35 senior representatives from UK academia, environmental management & policy, and scientific journalism. 

Using a technique called ‘horizon scanning.’ They have established a list of 25 future novel threats facing UK biodiversity. This list includes toxic nanomaterials, potential invasiveness of new artifical life species and biomimetic robots or genetically engineered viruses. Although they only covered the UK situation, most of the 25 treats can be applied to other parts of the world.

"The original inspiration for the event came from the debate over genetically modified crops. ‘I was struck by the fact that we were doing a lot of research into the environmental effects of GM crops after policy makers had made their decisions, it was just the wrong way around,’ according to an interview William Sutherland, Professor of Conservation Biology at the Department of Zoology of the University of Cambridge, UK, told New Scientist. He notes that the future supply of biofuel is already becoming a political issue because a thorough environmental assessment has yet to be carried out."

The 35 senior representatives participated in a workshop to scrutinize the effects of current and future technologies on or environment. They called for greater amounts of research into the potential environmental impact of releasing manmade viruses and technology. Professor Andrew Pullin, Centre of Evidence-Based Conservation (CEBC), University of Wales: Bangor (my PhD supervisor) added “that it was surprising to many of us at the workshop how far some technologies (e.g. nanotechnology and artificial life) have been developed and applied without their impact on the environment being assessed in any serious way.” Professor Pullin added “It’s notable that Defra have recently put out to tender a contract to assess the risk to the environment of release of nanoparticles.”

In the list below are 12 of the issues that the authors rated as high, both for ‘assessed likelihood’ and ‘potential threat on biodiversity’. The issues are not listed in any particular order.

  • Direct impact of novel pathogens
  • Action to facilitate species range change in the face of climate change
  • Frequency of extreme weather events
  • Geo-engineering the planet to mitigate the effects of climate change
  • Increased fire risk
  • Increasing demand for biofuel and biomass
  • Reduction of coldwater continental shelf marine habitats
  • Significant increase in coastal and offshore power generation
  • Dramatic changes in freshwater flows
  • Nature conservation policy and practice may not keep pace with environmental change
  • Decline in engagement with nature
  • Public antagonism towards wildlife due to perceived human health threat

Please take the time to read the full report, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, and freely available in either pdf or html. I look forward to any comments that our readers might have on this subject.

Full Reference: William J. Sutherland, Mark J. Bailey, Ian P. Bainbridge, Tom Brereton, Jaimie T. A. Dick, Joanna Drewitt, Nicholas K. Dulvy, Nicholas R. Dusic, Robert P. Freckleton, Kevin J. Gaston, Pam M. Gilder, Rhys E. Green, A. Louise Heathwaite, Sally M. Johnson, David W. Macdonald, Roger Mitchell, Daniel Osborn, Roger P. Owen, Jules Pretty, Stephanie V. Prior, Havard Prosser, Andrew S. Pullin, Paul Rose, Andrew Stott, Tom Tew, Chris D. Thomas, Des B. A. Thompson, Juliet A. Vickery, Matt Walker, Clive Walmsley, Stuart Warrington, Andrew R. Watkinson, Rich J. Williams, Rosie Woodroffe, Harry J. Woodroof (2008) Future novel threats and opportunities facing UK biodiversity identified by horizon scanning. Journal of Applied Ecology online early doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01474.x 

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