Frontiers 2018-2019: the five major emerging issues for the environment

Frontiers 2018-2019: the five major emerging issues for the environment

August 09, 2019

Frontiers 2018-2019: the five major emerging issues for the environment

From new technologies of genetic manipulation to the ability to adapt to climate change, the UN report takes stock of the latest environmental issues.

Synthetic biology, ecological connectivity, permafrost thaw, nitrogen emissions and adaptation to climate change are the five major themes identified by the United Nations (UN) as emerging priorities in their Frontiers 2018-2019 report, presented at the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly held in Nairobi, Kenya. “Every year a network of scientists, experts and institutions across the world work with UN Environment to identify and analyze emerging issues that will have profound effects on our society, economy and environment,” explains Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in the foreword to the 2018-2019 report. “The issues examined in [the report] 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. 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 added.

Synthetic biology: advantages and risks

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, “synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.” Many synthetic biology products are already on the market, such as genetically modified microorganisms, destined to become small factories producing biofuel or drugs. But while many aspects of this new approach to the environment can be beneficial to ecosystems and an example of sustainability, there is no shortage of risks. Manipulating the genetic material of an organism can lead to unexpected cross-contamination, with not always predictable results. This is precisely why it is important that international regulators work in unison to ensure safe research and development in the sector. 

Reconnecting environments to preserve biodiversity

Today's ecosystems have been ‘fragmented’ by human intervention (which has altered 75% of the planet's land surface) and have lost their once-characteristic continuity. “Fragmentation is typically a symptom of landscape transformation and destruction,” reads the United Nations report, which also lists the typical effects of dividing a habitat into fragments: a reduction of overall habitat area and quality, increased isolation of small habitat patches, and increased disturbance associated with artificial boundaries. Animal and plant species suffer greatly as a result of this fragmentation, as it reduces the possibility of moving to adapt to changes and thus increases the risk of extinction. Special attention must be paid to this issue and great effort made not to lose existing connections and to recreate the lost ones. A supranational commitment is required, because the environment has no borders.

When the soil melts

Due to global warming, the planet's temperature is rising, but in the Arctic this phenomenon is occurring at a rate of twice the global average. Scientists are particularly concerned about the melting of permafrost, a permanently frozen layer of soil typical of the northernmost regions of the globe, which has undergone enormous transformations in recent years and has retreated 30-80 km to the north. The risks associated with the thawing of this icy soil and its insulating layer of peat are both direct – affecting the ecosystems, hydrology and infrastructure of the regions in question – and indirect, linked to the release of significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which can only worsen global warming. Once again, a global effort is needed to keep this land intact, also taking into account that 50% of the coal remaining in the soil is located in the Arctic, preserved in the peat and often in the form of permafrost.


Nitrogen: from a vicious circle to a virtuous one

Nitrogen (N) is a key element for life on Earth: as N2, it represents 78% of the air we breathe and is a fertilizer that assists in plant growth. However, the excess of this natural element and its compounds has become a global emergency, according to UNEP experts who had already highlighted the importance of this theme in the UNEP 2014 Year Book. On balance, some nitrogen compounds represent greenhouse gases hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide and can also have numerous negative effects on air, water, soil and ozone layer quality. The good news is that nations are moving toward a holistic approach to the challenge of nitrogen management, with China, India and the European Union successfully working to reduce nitrogen losses and to improve the effectiveness of fertilizers that contain it. The ultimate goal could be the application of a circular economy to this element, which is seen as a resource to be recycled and reused.

Changing with climate change

Last but not least, the issue of climate change and the environment's ability to adapt to it. In particular, as early as 2001, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defined environmental ‘maladaptation’ as “an adaptation that does not succeed in reducing vulnerability but increases it instead.” As set out in the UN report, environmental maladaptation can have several causes, from decisions made without sound scientific foundations to inattentive trade policies, via actions that result in dependence on certain scenarios and leave no options for future generations. Global commitment should focus precisely on avoiding these risk factors and on ensuring that all environments have the true capacity to evolve in order to best adapt to climate change. 

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