The new year once again brings the opportunity to discuss emerging conservation issues that could significantly affect the environment—in both positive and negative ways. I recently joined a panel of experts from around the world to conduct a horizon scan, a collaborative research method used for surfacing threats and opportunities, to identify the top 15 novel conservation issues that are likely to warrant society’s urgent attention in the next five to 10 years.
Over the past several months we canvassed around 1,300 other experts, which yielded a list of 102 issues, which we then scored, ranked, and rigorously discussed. The resulting study, published in the January 2023 issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution, outlines 15 issues ranging from positive developments such as technical advances in thermal batteries and the expansion of biodegradable materials to those with probable negative implications, such as resource exploitation and climate change-driven changes to ocean currents.
Several of the issues presented in the 2023 horizon scan intersect with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ research and advocacy. Here is a summary of some of those issues and why they rose to the top of our list.
The byproducts of garbage patches in the ocean
Large quantities of humanmade debris, including at least 13 million metric tons of plastic, enter the ocean every year. Over time, and driven by circular ocean currents called gyres, this debris collects and forms floating patches that vary in size and are a threat to the marine environment. Despite the many negative aspects of ocean plastic, studies show these garbage patches are home to high numbers of floating marine organisms and support unique and complex food webs. In fact, some species may benefit from plastic aggregations because of the novel environment that has been produced. Further study is needed to explore remediation strategies that both reduce these plastic aggregations and retain any potential ecological functions they support.
Reduced resilience of coastal wetlands to sea level rise
Coastal wetlands support high levels of biodiversity and are refuges for migratory birds and juvenile fish. They also provide numerous benefits to people, including flood protection, shoreline erosion control, and recreational opportunities. However, climate change, the expansion of urban areas, the development of aquaculture, and other factors are limiting the ability of wetlands to grow both vertically and by expanding inland. As a result, sea level rise may outpace the growth of coastal wetlands and accelerate the rate of loss of these ecosystems.
Acceleration of some ocean currents
Ocean currents drive the movement of water, heat, and nutrients around the globe and play a vital role in weather patterns and climate. Warmer sea surface temperatures and other climate change impacts are causing upper-ocean currents to speed up, narrow, and occur closer to the surface. These shifts could alter other ocean dynamics, like upwelling, nutrient cycling, and the ability of the ocean’s surface to absorb heat from the atmosphere—all of which would have impacts on marine life, fisheries, and coastal communities that are yet to be determined.
Fishing with artificial lights
Fishers have long deployed lights at the water’s surface at night to attract fish, squid, and other animals, and are increasingly dropping lights to greater depths. Although this often yields a better haul, it may also increase bycatch of undersized or young individuals. The ecological effects of deploying lights to deeper waters are also largely unknown, as are the impacts to deep-water species that are adapted to dark environments.
The prioritization of biodiversity by private organizations
More businesses and finance organizations are facing requirements—imposed from within or by governments—to report their impacts on biodiversity. For example, in France, a law passed in 2019 requires financial institutions to disclose the effects their investments may have on biodiversity and to present mitigation strategies. If more countries pass similar legislation, this could help advance conservation and restoration efforts.
Other novel conservation issues that made this year’s horizon scan include the development and expansion of selective lithium mining technologies to produce batteries for electric vehicles and other products, and a growing demand for chitosan—a substance derived from the hard exterior of crustaceans, insects, and fungal cell walls—that can be used in applications from water treatment to food packaging.
The full global impact of the issues included in the 2023 horizon scan will continue to unfold in the coming years. And it should be noted that some issues may never fully emerge. Regardless, our goal in drawing attention to them with this study is to raise awareness, initiate discussion, and increase further scientific investigation of them.
The 2023 horizon scan was coordinated by the U.K.-based Cambridge Conservation Initiative and was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Jim Palardy leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science work.