The Importance of Horizon Scans for Finding Emerging Conservation Issues

By: Molly Rickles, SRC Intern

Often times, there are many conservation issues that go unnoticed because the general public and government are focusing on larger, more easily accessible issues. However, this doesn’t mean that the smaller, more localized conservation issues aren’t important. Horizon scans of emerging issues brings to light some of these other equally important situations. To determine the most pressing issues that aren’t receiving enough attention, the authors of this study first identified possible topics, which resulted in an original search of 91 topics. Then, they circulated the list to participants who ranked the topics based on their awareness of the topic. This narrowed down the list to 15 topics that are presented in this paper. All of the topics presented are assumed to be low knowledge areas of study, and topics that need attention due to their urgency or potential magnitude (Figure 1). While the topics range from Antarctic ice loss to the use of salt tolerant rice, some general similarities and observations can be drawn. While many of the issues focus on finding sustainable solutions, it is highlighted that even these ‘better’ alternatives can still have negative environmental effects. This shows the need for more research and environmental impact assessments before implementing alternative solutions to common problems, because the effects can be negative even if the solution is perceived to be more sustainable.

Figure 1: This image shows the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China, which is where China is building new irrigation canals that could have devastating environmental impacts (source:

Another general observation is that powerful governments, such as the US and China, have the ability to implement policy that has global environmental impacts. For example, one of the highlighted topics was the use of new irrigation canals in China for farming that would destroy multiple ecosystems without the use of an environmental impact assessment. This could have far reaching effects for the health of the river system that travels beyond China’s boundaries (Figure 2). This fact is also highlighted by the US government’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Since the US will not be following the set emission standards, the health of the global environment will be affected.

Figure 2: This image shows the methodology used by the authors. The authors started with a large sample size and narrowed it down by surveys and in person meetings to determine the most relevant topics to be used in the horizon scan.

A reoccurring theme throughout the topics was new agricultural technology. The authors suggested that this might hint at the urgency among scientists of meeting food demands, which is becoming an important issue. While such new technology would be advantageous if it improved food availability, new technology is not always monitored or regulated. This can cause detrimental environmental impacts.

These horizon scans of environmental issues are important for bringing light to less well-known conservation problems. All of the topics are considered to be low awareness, but with enough research involved to show it can be plausible. Bringing these issues to the public’s attention is extremely important to raise awareness and make sure that the best solutions are being implemented to create a more environmentally conscious global community.

Work Cited:

Sutherland, W. J., Broad, S., Butchart, S. H., Clark, S. J., Collins, A. M., Dicks, L. V., . . . Gaston, K. J. (2019). A Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation in 2019. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.