European Commission, Environment DG

Biodiversity fortune-telling: extreme weather and new diseases

Foreseeing future challenges to the environment is essential for the development of environmental policy. Some recent contentious issues that could have been foreseen include the negative public reaction to genetically-modified crops in the United Kingdom, and challenges posed by avian flu, foot and mouth disease and biofuels. New research points to
issues ranging from extreme weather events to restoration of habitats, which could affect biodiversity either positively or negatively.

A new study has listed the 25 most relevant issues that will affect biodiversity in the UK, up to the year 2050. The issues were identified by 452 representatives from a wide range of organisations involved in environmental policy, including government agencies, academia and conservation groups.

The technique used, called horizon scanning, drew on opinions from participants on 195 potential future benefits and threats to biodiversity. The participants scored issues for probability, degree of hazard and novelty of threat. The 25
most important issues, many of which could be both beneficial and hazardous to biodiversity, require careful consideration from policy makers and are likely to be relevant across Europe.

These issues include:
• Nanotechnologies
• Invasive potential and possible ecosystem impacts of artificial life and biomimetic robots
• Unintended consequences of pathogens developed by modern biotechnology methods
• Direct impact of novel pathogens
• Facilitation of non-native invasive species through climate change and accelerated impact of invasive species
• Large-scale restoration for iconic wildlife and habitats
• Frequency of extreme weather events
• Geo-engineering the planet to mitigate the effects of climate change
• Implications for biodiversity of the adoption of an ecosystem approach
• Increasing demand for biofuel and biomass
• A sudden change in demand for food and hence pressure on land for agriculture
• Ocean acidification
• Significant increase in coastal and offshore power generation
• Extreme high-water coastal events
• Internet and new e-technologies connect people with information on the environment

The direct impact of novel pathogens, frequency of extreme weather conditions and a reduction of coldwater marine
habitats were rated as being both highly probable and entailing high levels of threat. Other issues, such as the impact of nanotechnologies and ocean acidification were scored as highly likely to occur, but with uncertain levels of risk attached.

Two general points repeatedly emerged – a need for improved risk assessment procedures and a need for improved intelligent surveillance and monitoring systems. Both of these would provide early warnings of adverse effects as part of an ecosystem-based approach to conservation management. The authors recommend repeating horizon scanning exercises at regular intervals and using a broad range of consultants covering all relevant aspects, including political, social and economic as well as environmental and scientific effects.

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