It’s no secret that the diversity of life around us is plummeting fast. In 2020 alone, scientists declared more than 100 species to be extinct. And that’s bad news not only for the creatures themselves, but for those of us (that would be all of us) who rely on them for food, to produce oxygen, to hold soil in place, to cleanse water, to beautify our world and so much more. The World Economic Forum says that nature is responsible for more than half of the world’s GDP.
So what can we do now to minimize future harm? One important thing is to identify future threats and opportunities for biodiversity protection and to actively shape policies and actions that prevent harm. A group of conservation professionals and scientists led by William Sutherland, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Cambridge, creates and publishes each year a document to this effect. “horizon scan” of global trends with impacts for biodiversity. Read on for this year’s top picks, and see our coverage of previous years’ horizon scans hereOr at the bottom of the page.
Finding a suitable location to install large solar panels is a major challenge for solar power. With more than 300 installations worldwide, the idea of placing them on the water has become a popular choice. This approach has many benefits for biodiversity. One benefit is that it conserves land resources, which might otherwise have been covered by solar panels. It can reduce algal blooms in waterways. It can reduce habitat-harming energy sources like hydropower. The panels are also more efficient due to the evaporative cooling water. All that said, still to be determined are the potential implications — positive and negative — for aquatic and marine ecosystems.
Energy through the Air
The staples of civilization are powerlines, as well as the towers and poles holding them. Imagine being able replace them with devices that transmit electricity through air, instead of wires. That vision is closer to becoming reality, thanks to innovations in materials and in technologies that create and direct beams of energy — think wireless smartphone charging writ large. Long-distance wireless energy infrastructure could be deployed to reduce wildlife collision risks, which are a result of conventional hardware. On the downside, it could also stimulate energy use and make it easier to live in remote locations, hastening the destruction or disruption of our planet’s few remaining untrammeled areas.
Satellites in the Sky
You think that human impacts on biodiversity are only limited to the biosphere. You need to think again. There are currently more than 2,000 communications satellites orbiting our planet. With current plans, that number could rise to 100,000 within the next ten years. The process of deploying and decommissioning these extraplanetary objects can disrupt the stratospheric ozone layer; deposit aluminum in, and otherwise modify the chemical composition of, the upper atmosphere; and alters Earth’s albedo — its ability to reflect sunlight. These changes can have an impact on the amount and type radiation that hits our planet’s surface. Satellite deployment is increasing rapidly, which could have significant implications for climate and ultraviolet light exposure, as well as other conditions that impact the well-being living things.
There have been many twists and turns in the search for alternative transportation fuels. Each has its own benefits and costs. Ammonia has been the focus of recent attention as a fuel for shipping. It can power fuel cells and engines. It has almost doubled the energy density of hydrogen, and poses fewer issues related to storage and transporting fuel to where it’s needed. Problem is? The problem? As interest in ammonia fuel grows, the authors warn against false claims of it being a “zero carbon” fuel and potential downsides, such as increased air pollution, that might accrue from its use.
Airborne DNA Detection
Increasingly sophisticated tools for detecting and identifying DNA are able to pinpoint the presence — or even past presence — of all kinds of organisms from bits of their genetic material floating through the air. This capability opens the door to a wide range of conservation-assisting endeavors, from characterizing the members of a particular ecological community, to locating rare or endangered species, to tracking the expansion of the range of invasive organisms, to nailing perpetrators of illegal wildlife trade. So-called “eDNA” biomonitoring is already in use for detecting the presence of microorganisms, plants and fungi, and it appears to be feasible for tracking some animals as well. As technology improves, so will the potential applications to biodiversity conservation efforts.
There have been widespread efforts in recent years to reduce the use hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in cooling systems like air conditioners, refrigerators, and other cooling equipment. They are known for their ability to contribute to global warming. One of the most important types of replacement chemicals for HFCs, hydrofluoroolefins or HFOs, has many environmental problems. HFOs, as they decompose into chemicals that pollute the air and water, can cause pollution. Some produce potent greenhouse gases. The risk of environmental contamination from this long-lasting HFC substitute is on the rise. We risk contributing to climate change by not enforcing regulations regarding the deployment and decommissioning refrigerants quickly.
Meet Cement, Volcanoes
The climate and biodiversity are both affected by the production of clinker, which is a key ingredient for cement. It involves the mining of limestone, which is harmful to habitat for living things. And the process of turning limestone into clinker releases huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide — both from the energy required to heat it up, and from the carbon dioxide limestone releases in the process. Cement productionGlobal carbon dioxide emissions already account for around 8%. The demand for cement will continue to grow. The use of volcanic material instead of limestone could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and possibly improve cement’s resistance to cracking. The authors point out that it is important to weigh the environmental impact of mining and transporting volcanic stone against the benefits from reducing limestone use.
Insecticide Whack a Mole
Neonicotinoids are chemicals that kill insects by destroying their nervous systems. They were used to control pests in agriculture and have been criticized for their potential danger to bees and other beneficial insects. There have been other insecticides that are similar to neonicotinoids, both in Europe and elsewhere. These substitutes, such as flupyradifurone and sulfoxaflor, also appear to harm bees and other desirable insects, potentially posing new risks to insect biodiversity.
Spreading without Sex
Some insects and other invertebrates have evolved a novel solution to their “can’t find a date” problem: They can reproduce without sex. Parthenogenesis allows them to create more species when their mates are unavailable or scarce. It dramatically increases their chances of being introduced to new territory. The marbled crayfish is one example of an invertebrate that has developed the ability to reproduce asexually in captivity. This invertebrate is spreading rapidly across Europe and Asia, carrying diseases that could harm native species. We increase the chance that other invertebrates might be cultivated for food or hobby purposes.
Animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and “plant-forward” diets are gaining increased attention as a way to not only be healthier ourselves but to help our planet be healthier as well. China, for one, is taking it a step further: Rather than simply touting meals heavy on fruits and veggies, it has committed to cut its citizens’ meat consumption in half by 2030. Media campaigns and meat bans in certain settings have already contributed to a decrease in meat consumption. This initiative has also boosted innovation around the world. synthetic meats, with the country’s plant-based meat industry expected to grow 20–25% per year in the foreseeable future.
All Together Now
People living in rural areas can benefit from the support of local organizations, volunteer groups, and nonprofit organizations. They can also provide support for other living things. Globally, there have been 8.5 million social institutions, up from half a million in 2000. This supports sustainable management of around 300 million hectares (700,000,000 acres) of forests, farmland, and waterways. If this trend continues, it bodes well for biodiversity conservation as more lands are managed in ways that keep them — and the plants and animals that inhabit them — thriving.
Wetland Attitude Adjustment
The East Asian–Australasian Flyway, which extends along the eastern coast of Asia and Australia through New Zealand, is one of the top hot spots in the world for diversity and sheer numbers of waterfowl and other water-loving birds, including critically endangered species. With massive development underway in China — one of the top wetland-containing nations in the world — it’s also among the most threatened: In the past decade, many wetland areas have been transformed into farmland and cities. Recent changes have begun to bring hope. The United Nations has added highly important wetlands to its list of World Heritage Sites, providing a new level in protection for these areas. China has made investments in protecting important wetlands. If this trend continues, and other countries follow it, it could provide relief for waterbirds throughout much of eastern Asia as well as the western Pacific.
Mangrove forests that cover coastlines in the subtropics and tropics are home to many animal and plant species that thrive at the convergence of land-sea. In past decades development has decimated many, destroying the biodiversity-nurturing and carbon-sequestering services they provide. In recent years, however, the tide has turned. Conservationists’ efforts to restore and preserve these rich habitats have helped reduce loss. These wetlands also benefit from other ecosystem changes. For example, as inland forests are cut, erosion forces soil toward the coast. This allows for the growth of mangroves. Climate Change is creating more of the warm habitat that they need. These changes have combined to reduce mangrove loss to almost zero, although there are still areas of depletion.
Tide Zone Tribulations
Intertidal zones — the portions of the ocean’s coast across which water advances and recedes with the tides — experience daily fluctuations in temperature, water level, salinity, physical disruption and predation. They are now experiencing heat waves. Record heat wave temperatures in the Pacific Northwest in June 2021 led to the death of many species of coastal wildlife, including mussels, oysters, barnacles and sea stars. And that’s not all. Climate change is also threatening to alter the salinity of these fragile and complex ecosystems, as precipitation patterns change as polar ice melts. If this keeps up we’ll have more than a stinky mess: The complex ecosystems and the services they provide — stabilizing coasts, providing food, providing habitat, protecting water quality — will be fried, too.
Treasure — and Trouble? — Beneath the Seas
The seabed beneath Earth’s oceans harbors abundant bounties of precious metals and other mineable materials. These materials can now be mined using new technologies, and Nauru recently announced plans to allow it. deep-sea mining. This announcement means that either the International Seabed Authority has to establish specific ocean mining regulations or a commitment to reviewing applications under existing, more general United Nations conventions. Ocean mining may reduce pressure to disrupt land habitat — but it also opens the door to new assaults on unique deep-sea ecosystems and the living things they harbor.