28 March 2019
UNEP Report Explores Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern
Photo by: Lauren Anderson
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With focus on the most novel environmental challenges, Frontiers 2018/19 covers five key emerging issues: synthetic biology; ecological connectivity; permafrost peatlands; nitrogen pollution; and maladaptation to climate change.

The report explores challenges, opportunities, and research gaps in relation to these emerging issues, highlighting the crucial role of international collaboration.

4 March 2019: The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report titled, ‘Frontiers 2018/19: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern,’ focusing on the most novel environmental challenges. The publication covers five key emerging issues: synthetic biology; ecological connectivity; permafrost peatlands; nitrogen pollution; and maladaptation to climate change.

Aiming to be user-friendly, the report approaches complex matters using simple language and additional material, such as videos. “The issues examined in Frontiers should serve as a reminder that, whenever we interfere with nature – whether at the global scale or the molecular level – we risk creating long-lasting impacts on our planetary home,” Joyce Msuya, UNEP Acting Executive Director notes in the foreword to the report. “But by acting with foresight and by working together, we can stay ahead of these issues and craft solutions that will serve us all, for generations to come,” she adds.

Synthetic biology has recently emerged as a potential answer to a series of environmental challenges while at the same time posing significant uncertainties and potential risks. A new dimension of modern biotechnology, synthetic biology combines science and engineering to manufacture and modify genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems. Synthetic biology products have been developed to provide alternatives to existing commodities, including those derived from petroleum or from unsustainable sources. Synthetic biology applications have also been proposed to address challenges ranging from eradicating human diseases and invasive alien species (IASs) to reversing species extinction. At the same time, synthetic biology presents risks and challenges that need to be addressed through the consolidated action of governmental and international bodies. Development of effective methods to better manage emerging risks is essential in ensuring technological safety. Deliberations are currently ongoing under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Whenever we interfere with nature – whether at the global scale or the molecular level – we risk creating long-lasting impacts on our planetary home.

Ecological connectivity is explored in the hope of finding solutions against habitat fragmentation around the globe. Habitat fragmentation negatively affects species’ abundance, distribution, movement, richness and interactions, reproduction and genetic diversity, while impairing their ability to adapt to new climatic conditions. Maintaining or restoring connectivity between fragmented habitats or landscape patches has been identified as key to counteracting many of the negative impacts of fragmentation. Connectivity can be defined as “the degree to which landscapes and seascapes allow species to move freely and ecological processes to function unimpeded.” Connected ecological communities and habitat patches sustain vital ecological processes such as pollination, productivity, decomposition, and biochemical and nutrient cycling. Ecological connectivity can also help species adapt to future environmental conditions and buffer changes by bolstering ecological resilience to disruptive threats such as climate change. Despite the obvious advantages however, the world’s nations currently lack a consistent approach to implementing connectivity conservation. Initiatives to promote landscape connectivity offer hope in various global locations, but much more focus in planning to reconnect habitat patches or preserve existing connectivity is needed, and national efforts require expansion to the international level.

Permafrost peatlands refer to the ground in the northern hemisphere that remains permanently frozen and holds approximately half of the world’s soil organic carbon. Threatened by rising temperatures in the Arctic, permafrost underlies 25% of the northern terrestrial hemisphere, and holds large volumes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) locked in its peatlands – all which could potentially be released as the ground defrosts. Not only does permafrost thaw have direct impacts on ecology and infrastructure in local regions, it could also set in motion an uncontrollable snowball effect: as carbon is released from the thawing peat, it heats the atmosphere, “thus worsening climate change ad infinitum.” Research is underway, but at present, too little is known about the precise location of permafrost peatlands, how they are changing, and what will happen to the atmosphere if they all were to thaw.

Nitrogen is one of the most abundant natural elements and is largely benign in its unreactive forms. However, growing demand on the livestock, agriculture, transport, industry and energy sector has led to a sharp growth of the levels of reactive nitrogen in our ecosystems, with grave impacts on ecosystems and humans alike. In the form of nitrous oxide (N2O), nitrogen is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a GHG, in addition to the effects of various nitrogen compounds on air quality, ground and water, and the ozone layer. A cohesive global approach to nitrogen management is needed in order to transform the nitrogen cycle into a sustainable, non-polluting, profitable circular economy. Although there has been some progress at the national level, a truly holistic approach to implementing effective nitrogen management strategies will require international cooperation.

In its final chapter, the report explores the various ways in which adaptation can go wrong, from processes that do not work to adaptive actions that damage resources, narrow future options, compound problems faced by vulnerable populations, or pass on responsibility for solutions to future generations. It discusses what exactly constitutes maladaptation in relation to the objective of keeping the global average temperature rise under 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, and offers guidance on how to implement responsible adaptation strategies. This relatively new area of focus for policymakers will exercise the human attribute of foresight in order to attain the requisite “evolvability.” Long-term vision in designing development and adaptation policies will be required to make the right sustainable decisions for future generations.

The report was launched on 4 March 2019. [Publication: Frontiers 2018/19: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern] [Publication Landing Page] [UNEP Press Release]

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