Scoping the future threats and solutions to biodiversity conservation

4 12 2009

Way back in 1989, Jared Diamond defined the ‘evil quartet’ of habitat destruction, over-exploitation, introduced species and extinction cascades as the principal drivers of modern extinctions. I think we could easily update this to the ‘evil quintet’ that includes climate change, and I would even go so far as to add extinction synergies as a the sixth member of the ‘evil sextet’.

But the future could hold quite a few more latent threats to biodiversity, and a corresponding number of potential solutions to its degradation. That’s why Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University recently got together with some other well-known scientists and technology leaders to do a ‘horizon scanning’ exercise to define what these threats and solutions might be in the immediate future. It’s an interesting, eclectic and somewhat enigmatic list, so I thought I’d summarise it here. The paper is entitled A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 and was recently published online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

In no particular order or relative rank, Sutherland and colleagues list the following 15 ‘issues’ that I’ve broadly divided into ‘Emerging Threats’ and ‘Potential Solutions’:

Emerging Threats

  1. Microplastic pollution – The massive increase in plastics found in the world’s waterways and oceans really doesn’t have much focus right now in conservation research, but it should. We really don’t know how much we’re potentially threatening species with this source of pollution.
  2. Nanosilver in wastewater – The ubiquity of antimicrobial silver oxide or ions in products these days needs careful consideration for what the waste might be doing to our microbial communities that keep ecosystems alive and functioning.
  3. Stratospheric aerosols – A simultaneous solution and threat. Creating what would in effect be an artificial global cooling by injecting particles like sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere might work to cool the planet down somewhat. However, it would not reduce carbon dioxide, ocean acidification or other greenhouse gas-related changes. This strikes me as a potential for serious mucking up of the global climate and only a band-aid solution to the real problem.
  4. Deoxygenation of the oceans – Very scary. Ironically today I was listening to a talk by Martin Kennedy on the deep-time past of ocean hypoxia and he suggests we’re well on our way to a situation where our shelf waters could essentially become too anoxic for marine life to persist. It’s happened before, and rapid climate change makes the prospect plausible within less than a century. And you thought acidification was scary.
  5. Changes in denitrifying bacteria – Just like we’re changing the carbon cycle, we’re buggering up the nitrogen cycle as well. Changing our water bodies to nitrogen sources rather than sinks could fundamentally change marine ecosystems for the worse.
  6. High-latitude volcanism – One of these horrible positive feedback ideas. Reducing high-latitude ice cover exposes all these slumbering volcanoes that once ‘released’, start increasing atmospheric gas concentrations and contributing to faster ice melt and sea level rise.
  7. Trans-Arctic dispersal and colonisation – Warming polar seas and less ice mean fewer barriers to species movements. Expect Arctic ecosystems to be a hotbed of invasion, regime shifts and community reshuffling as a result.
  8. Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish – Not one I would have focussed on, but interesting. These spiny, venomous fish like to eat a lot of other species, and so represent a potentially important invasive species in the marine realm.
  9. REDD and non-forested ecosystems – Heralded as a great potential coup for forest preservation and climate change mitigation, focussing on maintaining forests for their carbon sequestration value might divert pressure toward non-forested habitats and ironically, threaten a whole new sphere of species.
  10. International land acquisition – Global financial crises and dwindling food supplies mean that governments are acquiring more and more huge tracts of land for agricultural development. While this might solve some immediate issues, it could potentially threaten a lot more undeveloped land in the long run, putting even more pressure on habitats.

Potential Solutions

  1. Synthetic meat – Ever thought about eating a sausage grown in a vat rather than cut from a dead pig? It could become the norm and a way of reducing the huge pressure on terrestrial and aquatic systems for the production of livestock and fish for human protein provision.
  2. Artificial life – Both a risk and a potential solution. While I’ve commented before on the pointlessness of cloning technology for conservation, the ability to create genomes and reinvigorate species on the brink is an exciting prospect. It’s also frightening as hell because we don’t know how all these custom-made genomes might react and transform naturally evolved ones.
  3. Biochar – Burn organic material (e.g., plant matter) in the absence of oxygen, you get biochar. This essentially sequesters a lot of carbon that can then be put underground. The upshot is that agricultural yields can also increase. Would there be a trade-off though between land available for biochar sequestration and natural habitats?
  4. Mobile-sensing technology – Not so much a solution per se, but the rapid acceleration of remote technology will make our ability to measure and predict the subtleties of ecosystem and climate change much more precise. A lot more work and application required here.
  5. Assisted colonisationI’ve blogged about this before. With such rapid shifts in climate, we might be obliged to move species around so that they can keep up with rapidly changing conditions. Many pros and cons here, not least of which is exacerbating the invasive species problems around the globe.

Certainly some interesting ideas here and worth a thought or two. I wonder if the discipline of ‘conservation biology’ might even exist in 50-100 years – we might all end up being climate or agricultural engineers with a focus on biodiversity-friendly technology. Who knows?

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgSutherland, W., Clout, M., Côté, I., Daszak, P., Depledge, M., Fellman, L., Fleishman, E., Garthwaite, R., Gibbons, D., & De Lurio, J. (2009). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003


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6 04 2014
Real Or Ideal World? | becca brooks

[…] life. Unfortunately we will not know which it will be until we are patient enough to see what the future brings us. Obviously we are all hoping for the utopian vision rather than the dystopian vision because […]

23 04 2013
14 02 2011
new_biochar_land

The world is a great place, but it is falling apart and we all are responsable for this. Be responsable now and try to make it better.
Biochar, one of the newest option can contribuate to atmospheric CO2 reduction. Find out more:

http://www.biochar-books.com

The Biochar Revolution is exactly what it says !

11 12 2010
History and future (of Australian ecology and society) « ConservationBytes.com

[...] Sutherland of the University of Cambridge had an excellent new take on his ‘horizon-scanning‘ perspective, and the talk itself was peppered with brilliant humour and positive notions [...]

9 12 2009
erichjk

Geoff (15:31:23) :
Biochar’s main effect on soil GHG emissions is 80%-90% N2O reduction, so should help mid latitude ozone.

Good News and Bad News About the Ozone Hole
Good news: The hole is getting smaller. Bad news: It was keeping temps lower.

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/12/good-news-and-bad-news-about-the-ozone-hole.php?campaign=th_rss

This just shows the intricacies and double binds that have presented themselves as we pollute and cleanup after our selves.
NOX & SOX clean up caused an increase in warming also, ( by reducing reflective particles)

Now we must clean up the CO2, the root cause of warming , which the Ozone hole & air pollution were just marginally hiding. To figuratively & literally fix the CO2 problem into elemental carbon for the soil.

Erich

9 12 2009
Jonathan

“the breakdown of methane in the stratosphere creates ozone. So reducing emissions of this gas would be good for the climate, but bad for the ozone layer.”

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2010-ozone-layer-will-thin-even-as-holes-heal.html

Methane has risen 1ppm since 1750 and is relatively static
CO2 has risen 100ppm in the same period, is currently rising at 2ppm

9 12 2009
Andy T

RSS’d! Awesome blog.

9 12 2009
CJAB

Many thanks.

7 12 2009
Geoff Russell

Biochar will have a place but I suspect the implementation details will be messy. How do you spread the biochar? With fossil fuel driven tractors? Without the details being carefully thought through, biochar just risks being another corn-biofuel disaster. Monbiot did a good job recently of cutting the spin down to size (just google “monbiot biochar”).

The Molina PNAS paper is great with one small blemish. Where does all the ozone come from? What is its main precursor? Globally its methane.

http://www.pnas.org/content/103/11/3988.abstract

But when the Copenhagen diagnosis authors looked at short term reduction strategies, they picked black carbon and ozone, but forgot methane (p.53). A deliberate omission? There were plenty of authors to pick this up. Why did nobody spot this? Was it for the same reason that Tim Flannery “forgot” to mention the biggest cause of deforestation in his “Now or Never” essay?

5 12 2009
Erich J. Knight

All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD.
To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.

Biochar provides the tool powerful enough to cover Farming’s carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.

Another significant aspect of bichar is removal of BC aerosols by low cost ($3) Biomass cook stoves that produce char but no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing “Three Stone” stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria.
http://terrapretapot.org/ and village level systems http://biocharfund.org/
The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).recently funded The Biochar Fund $300K for these systems citing these priorities;
(1) Hunger amongst the world’s poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa,
(2) Deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming,
(3) Energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and
(4) Climate change.

The Biochar Fund :
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

http://scitizen.com/screens/blogPage/viewBlog/sw_viewBlog.php?idTheme=14&idContribution=3011

The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )

http://biocharfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=55&Itemid=75

Mark my words; Given the potential for Laurens Rademaker’s programs to grow exponentially, only a short time lies between This man’s nomination for a Noble Prize.

This authoritative PNAS article should cause the recent Royal Society Report to rethink their criticism of Biochar systems of Soil carbon sequestration;

Reducing abrupt climate change risk using
the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory
actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/10/09/0902568106.full.pdf+html

There are dozens soil researchers on the subject now at USDA-ARS.
and many studies at The up coming ASA-CSSA-SSSA joint meeting;

http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2009am/webprogram/Session5675.html

The Clean Energy Partnerships Act of 2009
The bill is designed to ensure that any US domestic cap-and-trade bill provides maximum incentives and opportunities for the US agricultural and forestry sectors to provide high-quality offsets and GHG emissions reductions for credit or financial incentives. Carbon offsets play a critical role in keeping the costs of a cap-and-trade program low for society as well as for capped sectors and entities, while providing valuable emissions reductions and income generation opportunities for the agricultural sector. The bill specifically identifies biochar production and use as eligible for offset credits, and identifies biochar as a high priority for USDA R&D, with funding authorized by the bill.
To read the full text of the bill, go to: http://www.biochar-international.org/sites/default/files/END09F94.pdf.

Senator Baucus is co-sponsoring a bill along with Senator Tester (D-MT) called WE CHAR. Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration Act! It focuses on promoting biochar technology to address invasive species and forest biomass. It includes grants and loans for biochar market research and development, biochar characterization and environmental analyses. It directs USDI and USDA to provide loan guarantees for biochar technologies and on-the-ground production with an emphasis on biomass from public lands. And the USGS is to do biomas availability assessments.
WashingtonWatch.com – S. 1713, The Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009

Individual and groups can show support for WECHAR by signing online at:

http://www.biocharmatters.org/

Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far – both technical and policy oriented.
http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R40186_20090203.pdf .

United Nations Environment Programme, Climate Change Science Compendium 2009

http://www.unep.org/compendium2009/

Al Gore got the CO2 absorption thing wrong, ( at NABC Vilsack did same), but his focus on Soil Carbon is right on;

http://www.newsweek.com/id/220552/page/3

Research:
The future of biochar – Project Rainbow Bee Eater

http://www.sciencealert.com.au/features/20090211-20142.html

Japan Biochar Association ;

http://www.geocities.jp/yasizato/pioneer.htm

UK Biochar Research Centre

http://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/sccs/biochar/

Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.
Cheers,
Erich

5 12 2009
Geoff Russell

There is one blindingly obvious potential solution which isn’t on the list. It’s the 800lb gorilla that never makes lists like these. A paper in 2008 plus a few figures from FAOSTAT makes it clear. 12% of appropriated biomass was used as human food and provided 87% of global calories. 58% of biomass was used as livestock feed and the resultant livestock provided just 17% of global calories. I’m counting seafood as livestock here. The spread of western high meat eating patterns is clearly the greatest biodiversity threat on the planet, and so long as scientists consistently refuse to recognise this, their objectivity is in question. It’s like doctors talking about lung cancer risks and “forgetting” cigarettes.

5 12 2009
Natural Landscaping – It’s Easy for you | Landscaping Ideas

[...] Scoping the future threats and solutions to biodiversity … [...]

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