10 Jun 2019

New study scans the horizon for future conservation battlegrounds

In our Science Spotlight, we talk to a BirdLife scientist about their recent research. This time, our Chief Scientist Stuart Butchart explains a “horizon scan” of emerging conservation issues that may have big impacts in the future.

Insuring habitats like this Mesoamerican reef may become common in the future © Nick Mustoe
Insuring habitats like this Mesoamerican reef may become common in the future © Nick Mustoe
By Jessica Law

What exactly is a “horizon scan”?

Horizon scanning aims to detect changes in the world around us before they become well established, so that we can plan how to react to them. In the conservation world, this means identifying emerging topics that may have major positive or negative effects on the future of global biodiversity, but are currently going under the radar within the conservation community.

How did BirdLife contribute to the report?

We joined a team of researchers, conservationists, policy advisors and professional horizon scanners to invite ideas from across the conservation community. Nearly 100 potential topics were identified, which were then whittled down to 15 priority issues.

What are the most pressing issues raised this year?

These include the extensive release of mercury by thawing permafrost, the effects of shinorine sunscreens on corals and other marine species, the use of genetic technology to develop salt-tolerant rice strains, and the spread of industrial-scale palm oil cultivation into small, highly biodiverse and fragile island systems in Indo-Malaya.

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Are there any positive developments?

One exciting innovation is the development of insurance policies that share the costs and benefits of protecting natural assets. In Mexico, a stretch of the Mesoamerican reef is now covered by an insurance policy that provides funding to restore the reef and beach after severe storms, under a collaboration between the government, NGOs, and hotel owners. This new type of insurance could help protect other natural systems and the people that rely on them.

What is the next step after uncovering these emerging issues?

By publishing and promoting the results in a high-profile scientific paper, we aim to focus greater research and policy attention on these areas. This will increase our ability to tackle emerging threats and maximise the benefits of emerging opportunities. A recent review of the impact of horizon scans over the last decade found encouraging evidence that key topics had indeed been identified early on before becoming significant issues: for example, microplastic pollution, synthetic meat and the opportunity for environmental applications of mobile-sensing technology.


"A Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation in 2019" is available in Science Direct.