Exploitation of Antarctica by nations such as China and Russia is one of 15 issues that may potentially influence biodiversity conservation in the near future, according to a new study in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) Photo: S. Zeff/Azote

Biodiversity conservation

Looming on the conservation horizon

15 poorly known issues that may influence conservation in 2014

Story highlights

  • Annual “horizon scan” identified 15 issues that may increasingly influence and affect conservation of biodiversity in the near futur
  • A carbon market-induced financial crash, re-construction of extinct species and rapid expansion of macroalgal farming was among the issue
  • The scan also identified opportunities, e.g. that carbon solar cells could overtake silicon-based ones, reducing the need for rare conductive metals

A carbon market-induced financial crash, the re-construction of extinct species and a rapid geographic expansion of macroalgal farming. These are three of 15 issues that may increasingly influence and affect conservation of biological diversity in the near future, according to a recent article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE).

Other issues include extensive land loss in southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands, exploitation of Antarctica by nations such as China and Russia, and accelerated loss of rhinos and elephants.

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The list is based on a so-called "horizon scan" which is a systematic search for, and examination of, potentially significant medium- to long-term threats and opportunities that are not well recognized within a particular field.

"The outputs of horizon scans can directly inform policy-making, and stimulate action to prevent a plausible threat from being realized"

Johan Rockström, co-author

From little known to widely discussed
Rockstrom worked together with a team of conservation scientists and professional horizon scanners from the UK, Switzerland, New Zealand, the US, Venezuela and the Netherlands. An annual endeavour going on its fifth year, the scans aims to help reducing the probability of "sudden confrontation with major social or environmental changes".

Horizon scans have been described as an essential (but underappreciated) tool in order to respond to increasingly rapid change. Identified topics should be of the kind that are not currently well recognised and need further research.

Altogether, Rockström and his colleagues ended up with 15 issues out of an initial 81. To make it to the final 15, each issue had to be relatively unknown but nevertheless have potentially substantial impact on the environment.

More than 300 individuals contributed to the generation of ideas, resulting in 81 issues that were then reduced to 43 issues. In September 2013, the core participants met in Cambridge, UK, to discuss each remaining issue. At this stage the person who suggested the issue was not among the first three people to discuss it. Participants then independently and confidentially scored the issues again so that 15 remained.

Professor William Sutherland from the University of Cambridge led the exercise. He points out that the scans from the past four years have generated important insights.

"Several environmental topics identified by horizon scans, such as artificial life, synthetic meat, and hydraulic fracturing, have indeed moved from the horizon to the present, and are now widely discussed and better understood."

A new red list
The horizon scans also identify opportunities. One of the examples put forward is that carbon solar cells could overtake silicon-based ones. This could lead to less expensive cells that are completely carbon-based, reducing the need for rare conductive metals and indium tin oxide.

When it comes to ecological issues, the article also discusses IUCN’s development of a Red List of ecosystems. This will complement their already established Red List of threatened species. Categories and criteria are in place and the aim is to apply them across all ecosystems by 2025.

Johan Rockström and his colleagues hope that this can provide greater clarity on which ecosystems are most threatened, but also fear that it might put pressure on assessors to choose units of assessment on the basis of achieving political objectives rather than on the basis of ecological function.

The final 15
The 15 issues with the highest mean ranks (order does not reflect mean rank, but related issues are placed together):

1. Response of financial markets to unburnable carbon
2. Extensive land loss in southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands
3. Carbon solar cells as alternative source of renewable energy
4. Rapid geographic expansion of macroalgal cultivation for biofuels
5. Redistribution of global temperature increases among ecosystems
6. High-frequency monitoring of land-cover change
7. Reaccelerated loss of wild rhinoceroses and elephants
8. Increasing scale of eradications of non-native mammals on islands
9. Self-sustaining genetic systems for control of non-native invasive species
10. Probiotic therapy for amphibians
11. Emerging snake fungal disease
12. Polyisobutylene as a marine toxicant
13. Exploitation of Antarctica
14. Expansion of ecosystem red listing
15. Resurrection of extinct species

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William J. Sutherland, Rosalind Aveling, Thomas M. Brooks, Mick Clout, Lynn V. Dicks, Liz Fellman, Erica Fleishman, David W. Gibbons, Brandon Keim, Fiona Lickorish, Kathryn A. Monk, Diana Mortimer, Lloyd S. Peck, Jules Pretty, Johan Rockström, Jon Paul Rodríguez, Rebecca K. Smith, Mark D. Spalding, Femke H. Tonneijck, Andrew R. Watkinson. 2013. "A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2014," Trends in Ecology & Evolution, published online 11 December 2013, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2013.11.004

Johan Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist on global sustainability issues, where he among other things led the recent development of the Planetary Boundaries framework for human development in the current era of rapid global change.


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