One hundred questions to conserve global biodiversity
23 April 2009
Conservation experts have identified one hundred key scientific questions that, if answered, could help conserve global biodiversity.
Conservation experts from 24 world-leading organisations including the WWF, Conservation International and Birdlife International have identified one hundred key scientific questions that, if answered, would help conserve global biodiversity. Scientists say if the questions are answered swiftly, it could stem massive biodiversity loss.
Some of the questions include: 'are there critical thresholds at which loss of biodiversity disrupts ecosystem functions and services?' and 'how effective are different methods for assessing ecosystem services?' The conservationists are also keen to find out how nanotechnology impacts on biodiversity. Other contentious topics such as how ocean acidification might shape marine biodiversity and the effects of the changing water cycle on biodiversity - are also on the list.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), loss of biodiversity is accelerating despite a global convention committing governments to halt the decline. Experts say species and habitats are disappearing so fast there needs to be more effort focused on research that helps scientists understand what's behind the loss.
But there is a problem for conservation bodies trying to curb biodiversity loss. Sometimes, there is a mismatch between the conservation topics academics study and the information conservationists need to help them preserve biodiversity. The one hundred questions, published online this week in the journal Conservation Biology, could help address this issue.
"With the current crisis in the loss of habitats and species it is important that we ensure we are carrying out the most important research," says Professor William Sutherland of the University of Cambridge, lead author of the study and Miriam Rothschild Chair in Conservation Biology. "When research is designed to meet the needs of real natural resource protection projects, it can lead to substantial gains for biodiversity," he adds.
To address the mismatch, 761 conservationists from 24 of the world's leading conservation bodies and 12 academics generated a preliminary list of 2291 questions relevant to conserving global biodiversity.
The group of experts used email voting to short-list the 2291 questions before a smaller group of 44 met for two days at the University of Cambridge to decide on the final one hundred questions. The questions are not ranked.
Before a question could be included in the one hundred, it had to meet eight strict criteria, including: it had to be answerable through realistic research; it had to address important gaps in knowledge; and it had to be on a time and space scale that could be addressed by a research team.
The resulting questions are divided up into 12 key sections reflecting issues the conservationists are worried about, such as 'climate change', 'ecosystem management and restoration', 'impacts of conservation interventions' and 'ecosystem function and services'.
Many of the one hundred questions are at the heart of the biodiversity theme in NERC's strategy: Next Generation Science for Planet Earth, 2007 - 2012. The main overarching challenge within the theme is to understand the role of biodiversity in key ecosystem processes. Specific goals include: understanding which biodiversity thresholds will ultimately lead to extinctions and ecosystem change; understanding the impact of biodiversity loss on health; and developing new methods to assess the direct and indirect value of biodiversity to society.
The list of one hundred questions builds on a hugely successful exercise conducted in 2008 to identify the top 25 emerging threats to biodiversity in the UK - also led by Professor Sutherland - widely used by researchers, funders and NGOs to direct their own research agendas.
The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
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1. The paper, 'One hundred questions of important to the conservation of global biological diversity', is published online in Conservation Biology, 23 April 2009, doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01212.x
2. As the University of Cambridge celebrates its eight-hundredth anniversary in 2009, it is looking to the future. Its mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. It admits the very best and brightest students, regardless of background, and offers one of the UK's most generous bursary schemes.
The University of Cambridge's reputation for excellence is known internationally and reflects the scholastic achievements of its academics and students, as well as the world-class original research carried out by its staff. Some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs occurred at the University, including the splitting of the atom, invention of the jet engine and the discoveries of stem cells, plate tectonics, pulsars and the structure of DNA. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, the University has nurtured some of history's greatest minds and has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other UK institution with over 80 laureates.
3. The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) is an international professional organization dedicated to promoting the scientific study of the phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity. The Society's membership comprises a wide range of people interested in the conservation and study of biological diversity: resource managers, educators, government and private conservation workers, and students make up the more than 10,000 members world-wide.
4. The Natural Environment Research Council funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £400m a year from the government's science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences.
5. List of one hundred questions:
Ecosystem functions and services
- Do critical thresholds exist at which loss of species diversity, or the loss of particular species, disrupts ecosystem functions and services, and how can we predict when these thresholds might be exceeded?
- What is the effectiveness of different methods for the assessment of ecosystem services?
- How can biodiversity considerations be integrated into economic policies to reflect the monetary and non-monetary value of biodiversity, ecosystem processes, goods, and services?
- How can ecosystems be managed to increase protection to humans and biodiversity from extreme events?
- How, where, and when has biodiversity loss affected human welfare?
- What strategies for distributing the material benefits derived from biodiversity most effectively foster environmental stewardship and biodiversity conservation?
- How can we design protected area networks to increase carbon storage benefits and mitigate climate impacts, and use these benefits as incentives to support conservation actions?
- How does soil biodiversity contribute to the amount and persistence of ecosystem services, including agricultural productivity?
- What impact will the melting of polar ice and a reduction in permafrost have on the human use of high latitude ecosystems and how will these changes in human use impact upon biodiversity?
- Which elements of biodiversity, and in which locations, are most vulnerable to climate change, including extreme events?
- How is the resilience of ecosystems to climate change affected by human disruption and interventions?
- What factors determine the rates at which coastal ecosystems can respond to sea-level rise and which of these are amenable to management?
- How will climate change, together with other environmental stressors, alter the distribution and prevalence of diseases of wild species?
- How will human responses to climate change (e.g., changes in agriculture, resource conflicts, migration) affect biodiversity?
- How do biodiversity policies and management practices need to be modified and implemented to accommodate climate change?
- How will emerging carbon markets affect biodiversity through their impacts on the protection, management and creation of habitats?
- What are the potential effects of feedbacks between climate change and ecosystem dynamics (e.g., drought, forest dieback and coral bleaching) on the effectiveness of policy measures to sequester carbon and protect biodiversity?
- How much carbon is sequestered by different ecosystems, including their soils, and how can these ecosystems be managed to contribute most effectively to the mitigation of climate change?
- How, where and to what extent can natural and semi-natural ecosystems contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation? biodiversity
- How will climate change affect the distribution and impacts of climate-dependent disturbance regimes, such as fires?
- How will climate change affect global food production, and what are the resulting consequences for ecosystems and agro-biodiversity?
- How does biodiversity shape social resilience to the effects of climate change?
- How might nanotechnology have positive or negative impacts on biodiversity conservation?
- How do the type, location and associated mitigation measures of renewable energy technologies affect biodiversity?
- What are the direct and indirect impacts of genetically modified organisms on biodiversity and their resulting ecosystem services?
- What are the implications for land use and biodiversity of the new and emerging 'bio-economy' markets (crops for pharmaceuticals, plastics, adhesives etc.)?
- How effective are different types of protected areas (e.g., strict nature reserves, hunting reserves, national parks) at conserving biodiversity and providing sustainable ecosystem services?
- What is the management cost per hectare required to manage protected areas effectively and how does this vary with management category, geography and threat?
- What are the human well-being costs and benefits of protected areas, how are these distributed, and how do they vary with governance, resource tenure arrangements and site characteristics?
- How does the management of protected areas impact upon conservation beyond their boundaries, such as through the displacement of human populations, hunting or fishing?
Ecosystem management and restoration
- What is the trade-off for biodiversity between balancing production of natural resources from intensive management systems, such as plantation forestry and aquaculture, versus harvesting those resources from more natural ecosystems?
- What was the condition of ecosystems before significant human disruption and how can this knowledge be used to improve current and future management?
- What, and where, are the significant opportunities for large-scale ecosystem restoration that benefits biodiversity and human well-being?
- How can ecosystem management systems be designed to better emulate natural processes, notably natural disturbance regimes, and to what extent does this improve conservation effectiveness?
- To what extent, and under what conditions, does the integration of marine, terrestrial, and freshwater ecosystems within conservation plans yield better outcomes than plans based upon single realms?
- What spatial pattern of human settlement (e.g. clustered vs dispersed) has the least impact on biodiversity?
- What is the contribution of areas intensively managed to deliver production to the conservation of biodiversity at the landscape scale?
- How can an understanding of the factors affecting household decisions to invest in different natural resource-based productive activities (e.g. agriculture, fishing or hunting) be used to predict the biodiversity impacts of household responses to environmental change?
- What are the impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services of biofuel production and how will these vary by feedstock type, location, objective and technology applied?
- Under what conditions can agricultural intensification contribute to conserving overall biodiversity through reducing pressure to convert natural ecosystems?
- What are the impacts on and off site) on agricultural returns and biodiversity of "biodiversity-friendly" agricultural practices, such as organic, minimum tillage, and agri-environment schemes?
- Under what circumstances can afforestation, reforestation and reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) achieve benefits for biodiversity conservation, reduced emissions, and sustainable livelihoods?
- How do different forms of forest governance influence biodiversity conservation outcomes and the implementation of REDD
- How are arid and semi-arid ecosystems affected by the interaction of multiple stressors such as overgrazing, soil erosion and drought?
- What is the contribution of urban nature reserves and other green amenity spaces, such as golf courses, to biodiversity conservation and how can these be enhanced?
- How will ocean acidification affect marine biodiversity and ecosystem function and what measures could mitigate these effects?
- What are the ecological, social, and economic impacts resulting from the expansion of freshwater and marine aquaculture?
- Which management actions are most effective for ensuring the long-term survival of coral reefs in response to the combined impacts of climate change and other existing stressors?
- Which management approaches to fisheries are most effective at mitigating the impacts of fish extraction and fishing gear on non-target species and habitats?
- How does the effectiveness of marine protected areas vary with biological, physical, and social factors and with connectivity to other protected areas?
- What will be the impacts of climate change on phytoplankton and oceanic productivity, and what will be the feedbacks of these impacts on the climate?
- >How will multiple stressors, especially fishing, pollution, sea temperature fluctuations, acidification and diseases, interact to affect marine ecosystems?
- Which mechanisms are most effective at conserving biodiversity in ocean areas occurring outside the legal jurisdiction of any single country?
- How can freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem service values be best incorporated in the design of water provisioning schemes for direct human use and food production?
- Which aquatic species and communities are most vulnerable to human impacts and how would their degradation affect the provision of ecosystem services?
- Where will the impacts of global climate change upon hydrology be most extreme and how might they affect freshwater species and the ability of wetlands/inland waters to deliver ecosystem services?
- What multi-national governance, cross-sector cooperation arrangements and finance mechanisms will make freshwater ecosystem management more effective and reduce international conflicts over water?
- How does investment in restoring wetlands and riparian areas compare against construction of dams and flood defenses in providing cost effective improvements in flood management and the storage and retention of water for domestic, industrial and agricultural use?
- Under what conditions is trade in captive or wild-harvested species beneficial for wild populations of the traded species?
- What information is required to enable responsible authorities to decide when and how to manage non-native species?
- What is the relative effectiveness of different methods for facilitating movement of a species among disjunct patches of its habitat?
- What is the cost effectiveness of different contributions to species conservation programs such as education, captive breeding, or habitat management?
- What are the ecosystem impacts of efforts to conserve charismatic, flagship, or umbrella species?
- What are the likely risks, costs, and benefits of reintroducing and translocating species as a response to climate change?
- What are the most effective approaches for reversing range and population collapse in top predators, large herbivores and other keystone species that exert disproportionate effects on ecosystem structure and function?
- How can we best manage diseases that have the potential to move between wild species, domestic species, and people?
Organizational systems and processes
- How do the characteristics of the organizations (e.g., government versus non-government) and their funding (e.g., amount and duration of funds) shape the effectiveness of conservation interventions?
- What factors affect the extent to which practitioners integrate consideration of human needs and preferences into policy and practice?
- What is the cost effectiveness of different approaches for rapidly expanding professional conservation capacity, and how does this vary with circumstances and between countries?
- What is the effectiveness of different mechanisms for fostering the evaluation of conservation interventions, so that there is reporting of both successes and failures, and learning from experience?
- What is the effectiveness of different strategies to foster the integration of scientific knowledge into conservation policy and practice?
- What is the effectiveness of different mechanisms for promoting data sharing and collaboration among individual's conservationists and conservation organizations?
Societal context and change
- What are the impacts on biodiversity of shifting patterns and trends in human demography, economic activity, consumption, and technology?
- How does the relationship between economic growth and biodiversity vary across scales, among different types of ecosystems, and with the type of economic activity?
- What are the direct and indirect impacts of armed conflict on biodiversity?
- What are the biodiversity impacts of changes in energy prices?
- How do resource tenure systems shape conservation outcomes in different social and ecological contexts?
- What are the impacts of international trade agreements and related policy instruments on biodiversity?
- How do economic subsidies affect biodiversity both within the recipient country and elsewhere?
- How does corruption influence the effectiveness of conservation and what are the most effective ways of preventing negative consequences?
- What are the conservation impacts of improved access to education, employment, and reproductive choice?
- What is the relationship between individuals learning about environmental problems and their conservation attitudes, knowledge, beliefs and behaviors?
- What are the impacts of increasing human dissociation from nature on the conservation of biodiversity?
- What are the effects of changes in human patterns of food consumption on biodiversity (e.g., shift from bushmeat to domestic meat, fish to plant-based protein) and how are such human patterns of food consumption shaped by education programs, financial incentives, and other policy instruments?
- What factors shape human (in)tolerance of the presence and activities of wild animals, especially where those animals induce human-wildlife conflict?
Impacts of conservation interventions
- What have been the impacts upon biodiversity of the CBD 2010 targets and what objectives, mechanism, time frame, and means of measurement would be most effective for future targets?
- How do different values (e.g., use vs. non-use values) and framing of these values (e.g., ecosystem services vs. species) motivate policy makers to assign public resources to conservation programs and policies?
- What factors shape individual and state compliance with local, national, and international conservation regimes?
- What are the consequences of investment in improving knowledge (e.g., status, nature of threat, or effectiveness of interventions) versus expenditure on conservation action, and how does this differ for different conservation issues?
- What are the impacts on biodiversity and human well-being of differing approaches to devolving the responsibility for natural resource management?
- What are the impacts of different conservation incentive programs on biodiversity and human well-being?
- How does public involvement, especially of marginalized groups, in conservation decision-making shape the effectiveness of conservation interventions?
- What are the impacts of free, prior, and informed consent policies on the emergence, evolution, and performance of conservation interventions?
- How does providing information to resource users impact upon individual behavior and on support for collective restrictions and how does the impact vary with different means of providing the information?
- What are the conservation impacts of biodiversity-oriented corporate social responsibility regimes?
- What are the social impacts of conservation interventions and how and why do these impacts vary among social groups (e.g., elites, poor, women, indigenous)?
- What factors shape the likelihood and extent of formal recognition of customary rights and traditional institutions as the basis for conservation policy and practices and what are the impacts of this formal recognition on conservation outcomes?
- What are the most cost-effective means of encouraging broad, long-lasting, and active societal support and action for conservation in different contexts and among different actors?
- What has been the effect of environmental impact assessments on biodiversity conservation?
- What mechanisms best promote the use of local ideas and knowledge in conservation programs in ways that enhance biodiversity outcomes?
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