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This blog written by Marcus Nyman, Senior Policy Officer for the RSPB, delves into emerging trends for nature and how we can prepare for change.
From satellites impacting the atmosphere to new uses of volcanic rock and self-cloning crayfish, the latest horizon scan of global biological conservation issues introduces a host of challenging questions for the RSPB’s work in saving nature. This blog highlights five key issues we found most pertinent to the future of nature.
Every year, a group of researchers and conservation practitioners - many of whom are associated with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative - undertakes a horizon scanning exercise looking for new or shifting trends likely to impact global conservation efforts. This year’s iteration was conducted by 26 scientists and practitioners from around the world – including staff from the RSPB – and aims to identify issues not yet on our collective radars but with the potential to significantly shape (for better or worse) our efforts to save nature. Its focus is not on the issues already subject to extensive research but those that may be speculative, poorly understood or understudied.
The 2022 horizon scan is particularly important following the COVID-19 pandemic, which has demonstrated how far-reaching change can emerge from unexpected places, impacting the work and priorities of organisations like the RSPB. For example, lockdowns served to highlight the importance of access to nature for people’s health and wellbeing, while the virus’s zoonotic origins have demonstrated how deforestation and natural resource exploitation can open pathways for the proliferation of disease.
This means that more than ever, the environmental non governmental organization sector as a whole needs to be proactive in seeking out, preparing for, and influencing such trends for the benefit of people and planet.
For a long time, we’ve known that pesticides can have negative impacts on wider wildlife populations, notably the disastrous impacts caused by neonicotinoids on bees and other insects. In the face of these concerns, industry has sought to develop and register alternative chemical compounds – such as flupyradifurone and sulfoxaflor – to fulfil the same function as neonicotinoids. And yet, these new chemicals, although different in composition, may have similarly damaging impacts on wildlife, which are often not picked up during the pesticide's approval process. With the UK Government once again approving exceptions to otherwise banned neonicotinoids (something it could also do as part of the EU) the adoption of new and potentially harmful alternatives will test the ability of its now independent regulatory system to keep dangerous chemicals from finding their way into Britain’s fields and rivers.
Advances in and availability of genetic technologies have accelerated quickly in recent years. One application in conservation science is biomonitoring of water resources for the presence of species DNA to assess population presence and abundance. Now this technology can be applied to airborne DNA shed by wildlife, extending the range of wildlife such technology can monitor. This offers potentially quicker and more cost-effective means to monitor endangered or invasive species, conduct biodiversity surveys, or combat wildlife crime. It could open conservation science to different people and skillsets but could also reinforce a longer-term shift away from traditional field studies and taxonomic knowledge.
As a major driver of carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, global food and farming systems are a continued focus for policy commitments and action with dietary choices increasingly within the scope of government action. Commitments from China to reduce its national meat consumption have spurred innovation in technologies and alternatives to replace animal-based products. The UK Government appears reticent to make such commitments to dietary change, having previously relied much more on the market and individual choice to shape diets. But voices within the UK are increasingly calling for more significant government action, with the National Food Strategy pointing out, “it is unrealistic to expect the junk food cycle to be broken solely through individual willpower”. The stronger role the state has taken in managing key aspects of the food system during the pandemic may serve as a prompt for more concerted action to achieve national priorities in the future.
There is increasing proliferation of floating photovoltaics (FPV) – solar panels situated across waterways around the world. Installing FPV over water courses could come with a range benefits, such as freeing up land for nature conservation or food production, reducing toxic algal blooms or limiting transpiration in hotter seasons. Some impacts of such infrastructure are unclear and require further research – especially on impacts on wildlife but FPV could offer a valuable means to further the clean energy transition without putting additional burdens on land use.
A previous iteration of the horizon scanning exercise identified mining of the deep sea as a plausible and significant risk in the coming years. It appears this is an increasingly likely possibility, with the pacific island nation of Nauru having notified the International Seabed Authority of its intention to sponsor a subsidiary of a Canadian mining firm.
The ecosystems of the deep ocean are underexplored and poorly understood. They are likely to contain many yet-to-be-discovered species and involve complex biological and geochemical processes. Not only this, industrial activity and disturbance in the deep sea could have significant impacts on climate regulating processes, including carbon storage. There is limited international governance of the deep sea and the potential for commercial exploitation there has yet to receive much public or political attention.
As an organisation seeking to protect and restore nature, we need to be looking forward, as well as back. Getting to grips with the wide range of environmental, economic, social and technological changes impacting nature will be key for us to achieve our key goals.
Some of these changes represent opportunities, others fundamental challenges. Climate change itself is testament to the fact that the world we inhabit in 2030 or 2050 will be quite different to that of today or the past. Of course, we cannot predict the future, nor can we understand and adapt to a changing world in isolation but working together to understand what might be up ahead, we can be better positioned for change.
Within the Future Nature team at RSPB, we are actively exploring what changes will impact the future of nature and the economy. We are keen to hear what issues you are seeing emerge. What do the findings of the 2022 horizon scan means for your work? What are you doing to grapple with changing drivers for nature? And how can we collaborate to better support each others’ efforts to respond? Get in touch and share your thoughts in the comments below, by social media or via email (marcus.nyman |at| rspb.org.uk or oona.buttafoco |at| rspb.org.uk).
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