Emerging risks


Pollution is an ongoing pressure on biodiversity, but there is potential for new pollutants, such as micropollutants (see Section 3.5), to emerge that increase the pressure manyfold. Known pollutants that threaten to become major problems include a range of byproducts of industry and pharmaceutical consumption that are accumulating in waterways and animal tissues, and that disrupt hormonal function in a range of species—even at the low concentrations currently detected.92-93,210,215

Large-scale functional shifts appear to be occurring in soils worldwide, including increased respiration rates and elevated emissions of carbon.210 It is not yet clear what the significance is of this trend, or the extent to which it might be a problem for Australian soil processes and the plants and animals that depend on those processes.

The past few years have seen increasing suggestions for large-scale engineering of natural systems as ways to combat climate change and other environmental problems. Such approaches include the release of particles (e.g. sulfate aerosols) into the stratosphere to scatter sunlight back into space, deployment of large sunshades in space and seeding of the oceans with iron or fertilisers to increase carbon uptake by marine organisms.94,216 Serious concern has been expressed about the possibility of such approaches having unintended and disastrous effects.217

Some of the less likely risks, but ones that have potentially major impacts, include the:94

  • increased availability of genetic engineering technologies used to modify species that can then interact with wild species
  • wholesale failure of protected areas, due to climate change and associated effects (which would undermine the foundations of Australia’s conservation strategies)
  • widespread denial of biodiversity loss, due to the combination of natural human tendencies to deny major problems and effective anti-information campaigns.

Finally, there is a high likelihood of surprises in the future. Some of these will be in the form of new understanding of Australia’s social–ecological systems, just as ecology has produced a number of surprises over the past century that are now regarded as common knowledge.218 Some will be unwelcome shocks,219 but their impact can be lessened by good processes of scanning for emerging change and building and maintaining resilience.

Several recent examples have shown the potential value of formal approaches to horizon scanning and strategic foresight for anticipating and preparing for future environmental challenges, including those to biodiversity.7,94,209-210,218 Such processes may help us anticipate and mitigate the impacts of future challenges to Australia’s biodiversity.

Assessment summary 8.4—Current and emerging risks to biodiversity
  Catastrophic Major Moderate Minor Insignificant
Almost certain         Not considered
  • Slow progress on understanding the relationships between population, economy, technology and biodiversity, and communicating this to the public
  • Inadequate progress in scaling climate change models down to provide robust forecasts at local scales
  • Shifts in the ‘geography’ of agriculture (e.g. increasing intensity of agriculture in the relatively intact landscapes of the north-west in response to increasing rainfall there and decreasing rainfall in the south-west and south-east)
  • Emergence of more unexpected effects of human activities in northern Australia
  • Failure of technological advances to keep pace with pressures on biodiversity
  • Deoxygenation of oceans (major effect possible in long term)
  • Increased pressure on Australia to provide wood as deforestation is reduced in other countries
  • Increasing hard engineering ‘solutions’ to cope with rising sea levels, such as groyne and sea walls, impacting on beach and intertidal biodiversity
  • Increased water allocation to artificial snowmaking in alpine areas
  Not considered
  • Crossing one or more major thresholds of irreversible change in soil fertility, connectedness and quality of vegetation as habitat, or ability of species to adapt to climate change
  • Emergence of one or more major pests or diseases that spread widely among native plants and/or animals
  • Major interactions between altered ocean circulation and ocean acidification, drastically modifying marine ecosystems
  • Climate change which is so fast and severe that mass extinctions occur
  • Failure to improve ability of regional communities to manage their links with biodiversity
  • Large-scale functional shifts in Australian soils
  • Geoengineering causing unexpected and undesired effects on ecosystems
  • Increased pressure on coastal ecosystems from rising sea level combined with extreme events and decline of coral buffers due to ocean acidification
  • Major changes in food-production technologies reducing the numbers of people living in regional Australia and managing the land for personal and public benefit
  • Change in fire regimes to the point that major tradeoffs between human safety and biodiversity are necessary
  • Failure to achieve integrated and cooperative management of water for environment
  • Urban and peri-urban pressure jumping to a much higher level due to population growth and failure to manage human demands on the environment
  • Policy and/or technological responses to climate change and/or water shortages having unintended consequences (e.g. alternative energy technologies have impacts on biodiversity, desalination projects generate pollution)
  • Increased allocation and storage of water to cope with more intense droughts
  • Interaction of climate change and increased costs of energy creating major tradeoffs between food production and biodiversity conservation
  • Failure to establish processes for collecting relevant and adequate data to provide early warning of threats and opportunities for biodiversity management
  • Negative impacts on biodiversity from development of biofuels and biochar
  • Pollutants currently considered minor being found to have major biodiversity impacts (e.g. hormone analogues)
  • Unintended negative consequences of translocating species as a response to the climate change threat (e.g. competition or predation with other species at the transplant site)
  Not considered
  • Market-based approaches to managing biodiversity driving decline rather than sustainability
  • Ability to genetically engineer new species becoming widely available and is used by a range of skilled and unskilled people
    Not considered
Rare Not considered Not considered Not considered Not considered Not considered
Cork S (2011). Biodiversity: Emerging risks. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/science/soe/2011-report/8-biodiversity/6-risks/6-3-emerging-risks, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65ac828812