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Frontiers 2018/19: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern

This report calls on UN Environment experts to address the most novel environmental challenges currently facing the planet. As part of the UNEP Frontier series, it links new science to outcome-oriented policies on the environment and its sustainability. It combines highly referenced text with illustrative infographics and links to videos on related research and information.

Flood waters in Bangkok in 2011. Photo: ebvimages / Flickr.

Catherine McMullen, Kevin Hicks / Published on 4 March 2019

From breathtaking advances in synthetic biology to pitfalls in climate adaptation, UN Environment’s latest Frontiers report explores the biggest emerging environmental issues that will have profound effects on our society, economy and ecosystems, along with some exciting and novel solutions.

The report identifies five major topics – synthetic biology, ecological connectivity, permafrost peatlands, nitrogen pollution and maladaptation to climate change – and looks at them in-depth through a holistic perspective that covers text, infographics and related videos.

SEI Managing Editor and 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.

The chapter includes an illustrative infographic that focuses on case studies to  demonstrate a range of actions to adapt to changing climate at different scales, and includes examples on agriculture, drought, water scarcity, health, floods, sea level rise, wildfires, cities, and societal vulnerability. The chapter concludes that evidence indicates maladaptation can be avoided by evaluating all costs and benefits, including co-benefits, for all groups in society and by being explicit about who the winners and losers will be, and how the burdens could be better shared. Entrenched habits of dismissing the interests of future generations must be broken and we must optimize evolvability in our efforts.

SEI authors

Kevin Hicks

Senior Research Fellow

SEI York

Design and development by Soapbox.