What are the key environmental challenges currently facing the planet?

Posted on 5 March 2019

SEI contributes to new UNEP report highlighting global issues.

Impact of nitrogen pollution to agricultural practice - pig farming

‌The UNEP Frontiers report highlights emerging issues of global concern and solutions for effective and timely response. The 2018 edition presents six emerging issues, emphasizing the critical relationship between a healthy environment and healthy people. These are: the latest developments in synthetic biology; the critical advantages of landscape connectivity; the complex interactions and vulnerability of permafrost peatlands; the challenges of widespread nitrogen pollution; and the hazards of maladaptation in a world of climate change.

The report considers how the impact of new advancements in technology can bring enormous benefits to the world through their application but also, how they can carry with them uncertain risks. For example, synthetic biology can be a solution to replace petroleum based supply chains and use of non-renewable resources. However, caution is raised over the potential environmental and health impacts that may occur through accidental releases of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. Read the chapter here (PDF Link)

Whilst the issue concerning the impact of nitrogen pollution due to the use of fertilizers and agricultural intensification is not particularly new it recognises that recent international cooperation is leading to better processes for managing nitrogen e.g the establishment of an International Nitrogen Management System (INMS). In China, India and the European Union, new efforts to reduce losses and improve the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers are being launched. And, as a consequence, the recovery and recycling of nitrogen, as well as other valuable nutrients and materials can facilitate a transition, in farming, towards a circular economy. Kevin Hicks from SEI and European Director of the International Nitrogen Initiative (initrogen.org) contributed to the compilation of this chapter. Read the chapter here (PDF Lilk)

SEI Asia Science Writer Catherine McMullen authored the final chapter, entitled Maladaptation to Climate Change: Avoiding pitfalls on the evolvability pathway. This chapter 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 the problem faced by vulnerable populations, or pass on responsibility for solutions to future generations. It delves into the key discussions about what exactly constitutes maladaptation in relation to the objective of keeping global temperatures below the 1.5°C cited in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and offers guidance on how to implement responsible adaptation strategies. Read more about this on SEI's main website.

Other perennial issues include the fragmentation of wild landscapes which affect biodiversity and the thawing of permafrost, seen as one of the most important “tipping elements” that could precipitate a runaway greenhouse effect due to the release of considerable amounts of carbon dioxide stored in the soil. This is related to on-going research by Andreas Heinemeyer at SEI York centre looking at peatland ecosystems. Read the chapter here (PDF link).

Download the full report here (PDF).